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Diagnosing complexity and uncertainty


A final way of diagnosing why policy problems persist is to examine how simple or complex they are and what causes any complexity. It is helpful to do this as different types and degrees of complexity give rise to markedly different solutions and different approaches to achieving these solutions. Complex policy problems require a more iterative approach, to which ROMA is ideally suited.

In practice, there is no firm distinction between simple and complex policy problems – it is more of a spectrum – but it is helpful to clarify some of the distinguishing characteristics:

Capacities for change

Where policy issues are simple, decision-making structures are well defined and probably quite hierarchical. This means a decision taken higher up will filter through to the lower levels without much distortion, ensuring everyone is pulling in the same direction. In complex problems, decisions are not fully controlled by one actor but instead influenced by a number of different players with different opinions at different stages in the policy process. The responsibilities, skills and resources needed to make change happen are spread between different agencies or organisations.


Simple policy issues have goals that are widely agreed upon, so there is little conflict or controversy. Where policy issues are complex, different groups will want to pursue divergent goals and will pull in different directions, proposing or even pursuing vastly different courses of action.

Change pathways

Simple policy-making processes have regular rhythms, following set routines with foreseeable opportunities for engaging with them. Complex policy-making processes are much less predictable. It is difficult to understand what influences decisions until after the fact, and opportunities for making inputs into those decisions arise quite unexpectedly.

Gauging complexity will constitute one of the main challenges you will face when diagnosing your problem. Each potential aspect of complexity will prompt different approaches to influencing policy and managing your work. Table 1 summarises these approaches, which are described in more detail in the text that follows.

Table 1: Diagnosing complexity

Distributed capacities

Where power and legitimacy to make and implement policies are distributed through networks of organisations, policy problems become more complex. Networks may be horizontal or vertical, involving both government and non-government organisations. How they interact may mean informal decision-making practices become more important. Failure to understand this may lead to missed opportunities to contribute to or influence change.

Policy is shaped in multiple interconnected spaces

Policies are often shaped by decisions taken at a variety of geographical scales, and within both formal and informal institutions. The ‘spaces’ where decisions are made will be interdependent, and may have been claimed or created by one or more groups of actors. Addressing complex problems will involve working with several centres of decision-making.

Implementation of policies leaves space for interpretation

No single organisation can deliver change on its own. The real nature of a policy is often strongly shaped during the implementation process, particularly in countries with strong systems of provincial government and within structures where there is strong competition for resources and responsibilities.

Confusion may arise when agencies face multiple directives that are not consistent. They may then choose to implement only a small part of what they are supposed to do. Although systems for monitoring and enforcement can play a key role in determining what outcomes are achieved (particularly around basic service delivery such as clean water provision), it can be difficult to implement these effectively where the issue of who has control and who should do the monitoring is contested.

Broad and diverse groups influence policy and reform processes

A variety of groups will often contest key policy issues, with no single one having sufficient power to impose its preference on others. This gives rise to a complex interaction of interests. Broad coalitions across various loosely connected groups may be needed to garner support for policy change. The importance of informal networks here should not be overlooked.

Knowledge on how to change policy is localised

Much knowledge on how to influence policy change comes from ‘learning by doing’, particularly when policy processes are characterised by informal institutions and relationships and unstructured decision-making. This means understanding key policy dynamics is likely to be incomplete, even for actors at the top of a hierarchy. The opportunities for change on a sub-issue may be understood only by those continually engaged in working on it.

Distributed capacity in the problem of Nepali migrants

Policy on Nepali economic migrants is shaped in multiple interconnected spaces and by overlapping institutions, meaning its implementation leaves considerable space for interpretation:

  • Employment agencies have strong political connections through which they can avoid punishment and stop reforms that might result in financial losses. This influence occurs in informal spaces.
  • Government and business have strong links: many employment agencies are owned by prominent political figures and a large proportion of the rest have known allegiances to specific parties.
  • Bureaucrats tasked with implementing foreign employment policy are effectively subjugated to these interests through patronage systems.
  • The actors who need to come together to press for harsher punishments are highly distributed and informally linked together.
  • Migrants are a very broad group, and the migration process creates further barriers, in part because of separation from social networks. Prospective migrants compete with each other for a limited number of jobs; absence from the country and inability to vote further limit their political power.
  • A number of civil society actors work on migration, but there is currently no single strategic coalition pressing for change.
  • There is a relatively strong academic presence on the issue; some established senior ‘leaders’ have the ear of high-level politicians and have carried out crucial research.
  • The media and the general public have at times played a role in migration policy. Reporting on mistreatment and deaths abroad has occasionally led to a groundswell of public opinion against manpower agencies. However, this has not resulted in a broad coalition for change: the Nepali media itself often relies on foreign journalism for the reporting of incidents in migrant-receiving countries. The judiciary and the legal system have the power to help exploited migrants get compensation from manpower agencies, but there is insufficient legal aid in general, and for migrants specifically.
  • Development agencies in Nepal do not have a strong focus on migration and are not well coordinated on the issue.

Actors outside the direct sphere of influence nonetheless play a major role in sustaining the problem, thus hampering reform efforts:

  • Demand for cheap labour (such as for workers from agencies without paying commission) in receiving companies in the Gulf and elsewhere is high.
  • Governments in receiving countries show little interest in protecting migrant workers’ rights. Many are not signatories to international conventions on worker and migrant rights. International organisations working on migrant issues have little influence.

Divergent goals

Where different stakeholders have different goals, policy problems become more complex. For example, with collective action issues, it is highly unlikely success will be achieved by imposing the goals of one group on the others.

Narratives, values and knowledge compete

Underpinning divergent goals are typically quite different perspectives about exactly what the problem is, what the underlying factors are and how to solve it. The knowledge, beliefs and perspectives related to these are often major drivers behind the logic of people’s decisions.

Policy change for complex issues requires reconciling divergent interests and goals

As different groups aim to advance their own interests, processes of policy change can function like a large-scale negotiation. This can result in allies of convenience: organisations work with other actors whose values may not necessarily be the same as theirs. In some cases, they may not share the same long-term goals but bond together to secure short-term change. In others, they have a common long-term interest but different short-term goals.

Implementation may involve conflicting (or unclear) mandates

Many policy issues are shared between several actors. This means that, for policy change to happen, stakeholders have to reconcile their different aims, mandates, approaches and resource needs. There may also be conflicts between medium- and long-term goals, particularly where top-line project goals are not realistically achievable within the prescribed timeframe and programmes needed to target intermediate changes.

Divergent goals in the problem of Nepali migrants

Many stakeholders agree openly on the need to reduce the exploitation of migrants and punish those responsible. However, the underlying situation is more complex.

For some migrants, the goal of safety seems to come second to that of paid employment. Exploitation is to some extent naturalised: it is seen as an integral part of life for large sections of the male population.

Donors and international agencies that are explicitly or implicitly opposed to the mistreatment of migrants also face complications. Working to help labour migrants is a political risk as it promotes the exodus of Nepali workers: the International Labour Organization is officially opposed to labour migration.

Manpower agencies pursue exploitative practices to secure profits. In an industry where many players are cutting corners by paying less, taking a stand would make a single agency uncompetitive. Manpower agencies note that they are middlemen facing competition in destination countries and blame employers there for exploitation.

Political parties react to popular sentiment, and public outcry has resulted in high-profile policy announcements. However, the prevailing uncertainty and interim nature of politics in Nepal have encouraged parties to seek multiple sources of funding. Meanwhile, as manpower agencies provide one of the only booming and steady industries in Nepal, some see taking a stand on migrant protection as politically risky. Most political parties in Nepal place the blame for abuse on receiving countries.

Civil servants in Nepal acknowledge the problem, but their career progression is often driven by the need to maintain good political connections and to be loyal to patronage networks.

Uncertain change pathways

Where problems are complex, change is unpredictable. Making detailed, long-term and inflexible plans to influence policy will not work, as it is hard to understand in advance what the key drivers may be or how they will operate. Unforeseen windows for influence may be missed. As the Develop a strategy chapter shows, the emphasis needs to be on incremental change, monitoring and learning, with the flexibility to translate this into improved processes for influencing policy.

Uncertain pathways of change in the problem of Nepali migrants

It is hard to predict when good opportunities will arise to increase the penalties for malpractice by manpower agencies. For example, how strong pressure for action is, and how long it lasts, depends on the severity of the incident reported, making it difficult to predict.

If governments resort to ‘knee-jerk’ models of policy-making, with quick-win actions, populist measures and/or soothing rhetoric, policy is often not well thought-through and may be self-defeating.

Occasionally, political parties have acted on migrant exploitation without waiting for another horrific incident, even when this has come at political cost with minimal gain. Such possibilities are hampered by the inherent instability of Nepali governments. Given the opaque nature of policy-making on labour migration, it is impossible to predict which of the many possible entry points are the most promising.

Methods of influencing policy are therefore highly context-, issue- and timing-dependent.

Where knee-jerk policy is made, civil society figures with political connections may provide advice on likely policies, though often behind closed doors. Given the fragmented nature of Nepali politics, it is not easy to predict which connections (if any) will pay off.

Because of Nepal’s political instability, consistent implementation of sanctions against labour agencies is unlikely. Instead, change will probably only come through a ‘tipping point’ of horror stories, a critical mass of support or another crisis narrative.

Also in this chapter:

  1. Defining the problem
  2. Systemic factors: the political and institutional environment

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