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Keywords:

  • complexity;
  • public policy;
  • complexity cascade;
  • education policy;
  • health policy

For much of the twentieth century UK public policy has been based on a strong centralist, rationalist and managerialist framework. This orientation was significantly amplified by New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s, leading to the development of ‘evidence-based policy making’ (EBPM) and the ‘audit culture’– a trend that looks set to continue under the current government. Substantial criticisms have been raised against the targeting/audit strategies of the audit culture and other forms of EBPM, particularly in complex policy areas. This article accepts these criticisms and argues that in order to move beyond these problems one must not only look at the basic foundation of policy strategies, but also develop practical alternatives to those strategies. To that end, the article examines one of the most basic and common tools of the targeting/audit culture, the aggregate linear X-Y graph, and shows that when it has been applied to UK education policy, it leads to: (1) an extrapolation tendency; (2) a fluctuating ‘crisis–success’ policy response process; and (3) an intensifying targeting/auditing trend. To move beyond these problems, one needs a visual metaphor which combines an ability to see the direction of policy travel with an aspect of continual openness that undermines the extrapolation tendency, crisis–success policy response and targeting/auditing trend. Using a general complexity approach, and building on the work of Geyer and Rihani, this article will attempt to show that a ‘complexity cascade’ tool can be used to overcome these weaknesses and avoid their negative effects in both education and health policy in the UK.