Discussion paper

Grappling with complex policy challenges: exploring the potential of visualization for analysis, advising and engagement

30 Jul 2011
Description

The purpose of this paper is to provide a framework for thinking about the potential for visualization technologies in assisting public servants in undertaking analysis, providing advice to elected leaders, and engaging citizens on policy matters.

In the 21st century there has been widespread recognition that complexity is an inherent challenge in public policy development. No matter the policy domain, there is greater appreciation of the manifold linkages of actors affecting problems and those affected by them, the lack of systematic knowledge and the importance of context, the time lags of causal variables not to mention lagged effects of interventions, and of the surprises and uncertainties associated with problems and policy interventions. Invoking terminology such as ‘complexity’ and ‘wicked problems’ are part of normal parlance in any speech or paper on policy development and design discussions. Capturing, acknowledging, and addressing this complexity is a signal challenge not only for governments but also those seeking to influence and advise political leaders.

One way to grapple with complexity is with visualization technologies, ranging from projecting findings from large data-sets, to finding creative ways to display information, to engaging staff and communities in recognizing complexity and identifying strategic directions. There has been increasing use and celebration of visualization and social media tools in the private sector, and considerable interest from inside public service institutions as well as political leaders about how to exploit their potential. The field of visualization is diverse, rapidly expanding, and moving forward with great enthusiasm. There is arguably a growing expectation that governments and public service institutions should be investing in visualization technologies for analyzing issues, advising ministers, and engaging citizens and stakeholders on complex issues. However, governments have appeared hesitant about moving forward, with take-up uneven across the waterfront of departments and agencies.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a framework for thinking about the potential (and limitations) for visualization technologies in assisting public servants in undertaking analysis, providing advice to elected leaders, and engaging citizens on policy matters. It will focus on the ‘demand-side’ for visualization technologies, since a related background paper (Surveying the World of Visualization) focuses in some detail on the ‘supply-side’, namely the various traditions in visualization (information, graphics, and facilitation). The goal of this paper is to stimulate and guide dialogue among practitioners and experts about their experience in government using visualization technologies, their sense of potential yields and risks, and how to build capacities in this area. The overarching goals are to provide a framework and facilitate developing a strategic approach towards investing and consuming visualization technologies, and to fill a gap not only in the public policy and management literature, but also in the literature on visualization technologies.

This paper has five parts. The first sections address two questions: Why visualization? And, what is visualization? The third section sets out a preliminary framework to locate and guide discussions, while the fourth considers how visualization might inform policy work. The paper concludes by identifying issues for consideration at the roundtables.

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2011
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