Complex Community Governance

The idea that local people should be involved in the governance of their communities is not new (Briffault, 1990a, 1990b). However, little of real substance has so far emerged from efforts to engage and empower them. If local people are to be in a position to oversee or even run their communities then two questions need to be addressed: Should communities regulate themselves? And can legislation be used to promote community activities that will benefit local people?

What is important about local people is their connection with a particular place, whatever that connection may be. Local people by definition are not specialists in law or legal processes. Their value is their local knowledge and their network of contacts relating to their local area (Geertz, 1983).

We can explore these questions from this point of view by adopting a complexity-informed approach that uses interactions, iterations and emergent factors to set out and explain social, economic and environmental concerns. The resulting understanding may then be used to ask how laws and regulations are to be understood and used by people living and working in their communities (Kirk, 2012).

This brings us to the notion of ‘social complexity’. Social complexity considers real people together with their involvement in actual, ongoing situations. The relevant variables are held and judged together. Conclusions may be drawn but they are temporary or ‘for the moment’. Circumstances will change and so will the complexity outcomes. It is an important part of the complexity approach that social situations are held to be changing. Equally important is the ability of the complexity approach to account for this (Gerrits, 2012).

These considerations are timely, relating to a number of recent public debates on issues such as Scottish Independence, the treatment of refugees, re-shaping the National Health Service, Conservative welfare reforms and the Labour leadership (Corbyn, 2015).

The connection between complexity science and community governance is not immediately obvious and needs to be explained. Complexity science originated in physics and mathematics but is now an interdisciplinary field with a widening number of applications in the social sciences. As an interdisciplinary field, complexity-involving research takes different forms and approaches. Some understand complexity as emergence from the rule-based interactions of discrete agents and explore it through agent-based modelling. Others argue for a more general use of complexity and for the development of case-based narratives deploying a wide set of approaches and techniques (Mitchell, 2009).

What is shared is the notion that complex phenomena are greater than the sum of their parts. The parts are interdependent, interacting with each other and combining to produce non-reducible products and behaviours. Small interactions can have large effects and large interactions can have small effects. Furthermore, complex phenomena are related to their initial conditions. What emerges depends on the initial conditions. In some cases the initial conditions can produce long-term momentum or what is termed ‘path dependence’. Here we see a role for governance as allowing beneficial initial conditions and providing ongoing careful guidance (Geyer & Cairney, 2015).

And this is different from what usually happens. Taking a complexity approach shifts assessment and particular performance management away from individual items such as indicators or outcomes. Complexity instead assesses how the items relate to each other. It examines these interrelations and their consequences asking questions such as; which items go together? Is this what was expected? Are interventions required to join or to separate particular items?

Taking a complexity-informed approach allows communities to look at how interactions come together to form networks, partnerships and alliances. These formations are distinct from their component parts. Such formations produce behaviours and actions that cannot be reduced to the behaviours and actions of each component part. For example, a meeting may agree to set up a creche. No single part of that meeting is the agreement. What may be minuted is that agreement has been reached but the agreement itself is formed by those present, together as a whole (Large, 2015).

In such a way, insights from complexity may be used to govern and to regulate community-based social activities, local economies and the environments in which they take place in ways that are sensitive to the needs and the best-interests of those directly involved. In doing this, complexity-informed governance functions not as the imposition of an outside authority but as a helpful regulatory tool that is both sensitive and responsive to the needs of community members acting in local situations (Cairney, 2012).

Recently community governance in England has been considered in terms of ‘localism’ and the local regulation of local public functions. ‘Localism’ here refers to a devolution of powers from central government to local government and neighbourhood organisations (HMG, 2011). However, legislating in this way does not change the balance of power between central government and local government, nor does it change the balance of power between central government and communities. This is because the relevant powers and budgets remain in the hands of central government. Rather than allowing communities to make local decisions, government relegates local people to the role of consultees on projects or of grant recipients. Such an approach does not devolve power to local communities and does not give local people the self-determination they require to carry out local governance procedures successfully (Briffault, 1990a).

So the proposal here is that if communities were to be represented by independent, democratically elected neighbourhood organisations then local people could be directly involved in making the decisions that affect their lives. They could shape the place where they live or work and they could determine the services that they wanted to use. Further in times of cutbacks, such as the present, they could look at prevailing arrangements and determine how savings to budgets were to be made. Such neighbourhood organisations could negotiate with central government departments, local government officers and interested parties such as utility providers and developers working in the neighbourhood to obtain the best deal for local people (Morell, 2009).

However, the recent community legislation does not recognise the need for the establishment of locally accountable governance structures. Rather the result has been to move the responsibility for some budgets from central government officers to local government officers. The legislation has established a number of community rights but it has not moved control of resources from government to community. Consequently there has been little opportunity for local people to participate in making the decisions that affect them (Pipe, 2013).

For example, public health funding has been transferred to councils but then ring-fenced in large measure to activities run by the council and the NHS. This has meant that local communities have been unable to make decisions about how this money is spent in their neighbourhoods. Instead they are offered consultations on programmes that are set up, operated and controlled by the council and the NHS (LGIU, 2012).

Yet the benefits of community control and local leadership are clear and are shown by current evaluation procedures. Consider, for example, welfare-to-work schemes. Fewer than 15% of unemployed people were in sustained employment after being referred to the centrally-controlled Work Programme. In contrast local schemes have rates at more than 30%. This represents clear evidence that running local employment schemes controlled by local organisations is a more effective way of getting people into work than contracting large organisations to the job regionally or nationally (NAO, 2014).

This suggests that the value of a complexity-informed approach to community governance lies both in listening to the views of local people and in allowing them to run the services they need. This in turn requires community-specific legislation that separates neighbourhood powers from local government powers. At the same time, checks and balances are required so that community initiatives do not run off the rails. And here we find a difficulty. For, where local powers have been allowed, these checks and balances have followed the line of ‘the local authority is running the risk therefore the local authority has full control’ (NCC, 2011).

So how are we to give local authorities the confidence to allow communities to hold and to exercise local powers independent of government influence? Well, by placing the emphasis on complexity-informed considerations we begin to view community governance as a matter of how the community sees things in the present. We begin to lose concern for past procedures and precedents and we begin to see how governance processes and procedures may be applied and may operate in neighbourhood settings.

Once this has been done we will be able to consider each member of the community in full and be able to recognise and respond to the rights they are entitled to as fully-fledged community members. This in itself is a step towards revitalising democratic participation and to creating space for informed and relevant political debate. In other words we are both bound to and able to consider the people concerned as genuine participants, contributors, stakeholders and owners of the relevant governance processes. This, in turn, points the way to fuller, more genuine participatory democracy (Dworkin, 1977).

We have been considering the governance of local communities in terms of the interests and contributions of local people. We may now draw the following lessons and make positive suggestions for academics, policy makers and legal officers.

The failure of measures such as the Localism Act to empower communities shows that for meaningful, community-led governance a more radical approach is required. Nevertheless they indicate that there is a will within government circles for further community-based powers both to empower local people and to allow the delivery of local services in a time of public sector budget reductions (HMG, 2011).

Communities can be given the powers and the freedoms they need to shape and develop their own social and physical infrastructure. Addressing this task in terms of interactions and emergent factors allows relationships to be formed and maintained that are informed, engaged and responsive to the requirements and needs of local people. In taking this approach, complexity gives a way to form governance frameworks that incorporate structures that are focussed on local people and laws that are not only for the community but may be formed by the community. These frameworks would allow local government powers to intervene or to leave the community governance structures alone. Once agreed centrally, these governance frameworks would be applied to communities on a case by case basis as each community decided the route they wished to take. Local government would provide safeguards at the same time as encouraging local people to take control (Large, 2015).

In this way local people would become empowered and be able to take control of their neighbourhood. One way to promote this would be through a new ‘duty to involve communities’. This duty would apply to all bodies be they public, private or voluntary sector. Under this duty, organisations working within a community would be required to ask local people about governance issues and inform them of the options allowed within current legislation. Such a change would begin to move local authorities away from holding on to control and would encourage local people to become more involved in the governance of their community (Morell, 2009).

Overall, this means that by using complexity considerations, government and legislators are able to answer the questions of who is responsible and who has control. By taking a complexity-informed approach to governance, responsibility is shared among those involved at the level of their involvement, be this court, local authority, community organisation or local individual. Furthermore, the creation of a complexity-informed governance framework provides a legal foundation for a true community-centred localism and points the way to empowered, confident and mature community decision making.

A version of this material was presented at “A Jurisprudence of Complexity?”, Lancaster University, 25 September 2015. I thank all those who commented.


Briffault, R. (1990a) ‘Our Localism: Part I – The Structure of Local Government Law’. Columbia Law Review, 90, pp. 1 – 115.

Briffault, R. (1990b) ‘Our Localism: Part II – Localism and Legal Theory’. Columbia Law Review, 90, pp. 346 – 454.

Cairney, P. (2012) ‘Complexity Theory in Political Science and Public Policy’. Political Studies Review, 10 (3), pp. 346 – 358.

Corbyn, J. (2015) The Economy in 2020. Accessed 15 August 2015.

Dworkin, R. (1977) Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.

Geertz, C. (1983) Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

Gerrits, L. (2012) Punching Clouds. An Introduction to the Complexity of Public Decision-Making. Litchfield Park, USA: Emergent Publications.

Geyer, R. and Cairney, P. (editors) (2015) Handbook on Complexity and Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Kirk, D. (2012) ‘Peoples Law’. The Journal of Criminal Law, 76, pp. 187 – 190.

Large, (2015) Communities and Complexity. PhD Thesis. Newcastle: Northumbria University.

LGIU (2012) A Dose of Localism: The Role of Councils in Public Health. London: LGIU.

Mitchell, M. (2009) Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morell, K. (2009) ‘Governance and The Public Good’, Public Administration, 87, (3), pp. 538 – 556.

Newcastle City Council (NCC) (2011) Udecide Information. Accessed 5 August 2015.

Pipe, J. (2013) Two years on, what has the Localism Act achieved? The Guardian. Accessed 10 July 2015.

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