How to optimize democracy? – An approach based on Systems Thinking

In aiming to optimize democratic policy making we need to realize that our rationality as human beings is not perfect, our training and our professional experience are limited to specific areas. These observations are also valid for our leaders. Also a randomly composed group of people will often not have the perfect solution for a problem. They might assess the situation wrong, miss out on one or the other relevant aspect, they might forget one or the other element in designing problem solutions, which leads to their ineffectiveness or even failure.

Management Science has developed problem structuring methods which guide our thinking and help us to make sure our problem solutions are adequate and effective in a given situation.

The approach we suggest in this blog to use for “optimizing our democratic policy making systems” is based on Systems Thinking.

Below I include a description of the method contained in an article I wrote with the title: “Enhancing the effectiveness of international development – a systems approach”, published in Development in Practice, Routledge, 04/2010. The reader will find details on the two books quoted in the text under the “Library” tag in the blog.

Systems Thinking, in particular the Contingency Theory or the “functional approach” within Systems Thinking, understands “systems of purposeful human interaction”, be it in business or public policy, to operate in a way similar to systems in biology, such as the human body.   According to Systems Thinking the elements or sub-systems, which systems in business or public policy need to contain in order to function effectively, are determined by the purpose the systems want to achieve. Key sub-systems for the functioning of the overall systems are communication and control.

Systems and their sub-systems are interdependent and organized in hierarchies; people in companies for example are parts of workgroups, which are part of departments, the departments being part of the company, and the company itself being part of a wider social system (Ulrich and Probst 1991).  

Reflecting these concepts, Ulrich and Probst (1991) propose a methodology for problem-solving and building effective systems, for management in both the private and public sectors, which includes the following main steps (slightly adapted from the concept of the authors): 

1.       Goal review and definition.

2.       Compilation of all parameters affecting the defined goal or goals.

3.       Observation of how the system and its elements behave without interference.

4.       Clarification of the possibilities for intervention.

5.       Determination of strategies for problem solving which address all parameters of relevance.

6.       Implementation.

7.       Evaluation of resulting situation and restart of process, if required.


They emphasise that getting the goals of a system right is of the highest relevance for the effectiveness of a system. In order to enhance the quality of the analysis, the authors recommend bringing in specialists from various disciplines to jointly analyse the relevant parameters for achieving these goals.

  Systems are, however, not only the organizations and processes created to fulfil certain aims. Checkland points out that systems, viewed in a wider perspective, also comprise the “actors”, those system elements who “operate” a system, the “customers” of a process (who may be “beneficiaries” or “victims”), and the “process owners” (those with the power to stop it, in the words of Checkland; in this paper we understand the “owners” also as those who initiate and drive a process) (Checkland 2001).  

The sections on how to optimize democratic policy making in this blog and the proposal for the sequence of steps required for optimizing our democratic policy making system will be based on these concepts.

They help us to define what kind of system democratic policy making is. Since systems “of social interaction” are defined by their goals, we suggest understanding policy making as a “system to manage public policy issues in such a manner that well-being of society as a whole is maximised”. But as we see already this proposal implies many questions which need to be discussed and clarified in society, such as the questions, how we define “public policy issues” or which role the well-being of minorities plays with respect to the general goal of maximizing the well-being of society. One advantage of the proposed process is that it forces us to identify and address each relevant question and issue in a systematic manner.

A key suggestion made in the approach is to involve people with different perspectives in the design of a problem solution. We suggest that at least some should have training in management and problem solving methodologies. As we point out in another section of this blog, our chances to arrive at the best systems and processes for optimizing the performance of the democratic policy making systems are the higher, the more perspectives we include.

A question of relevance in optimizing democracy is of course the critical issue raised by Checkland, who the “process owners” are, a question of particular relevance in the United States for example, where big money plays a major role in determining the outcome of elections and all too often perhaps also policy decisions.

The challenge is to find a solution geared to optimizing democracy in which wider civil society determines the precise goals and operations of the policy making system. The solution we suggest in this blog is a citizens’ initiative or association to “set the operational standards” for the policy making system.


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