“Boundary-setting as a core activity in complex public systems”

Joanne Murphy, Mary Lee Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Title: Boundary-setting as a core activity in complex public systems
Authors: Joanne Murphy & Mary Lee Rhodes

The definition of the boundary of a system is at the core of any systems approach (Midgley 2000; 2003). By defining boundaries we enable – and delimit – the range of outcomes sought and the actions and resources that can be brought to bear. In complex adaptive systems (CAS) analysis, the conceptualisaion and definition of boundaries is particularly challenging as they are constantly undergoing redefinition through agent action, interaction and entry/exit. (Rhodes et al 2011). The concept of ‘boundaries’ appears regularly in a wide range of literature around public management, administration, geopolitics, regeneration and organisational development. Discussions around boundaries focus on many things from concrete physical manifestations and barriers, to virtual interfaces between one organisational unit and another, or even entirely theoretical demarcations between different schools of thought (Kaboolian, 1998, Levi-Faur, 2004, Agranoff & McGuire, 2004).

However, managing ‘beyond’ such boundaries is a routinely recurring aspiration that transcends sectors and local concerns. Unsurprisingly then, there is an increasing understanding of the need to acknowledge and manage such boundaries (whether they be physical, social or organisational) within public management as a discipline (Currie et al 2007, Fitzsimmons and White, 1997, Murtagh, 2002). This paper explores the impact of boundaries on public management strategic decision-making in the sectors of urban regeneration and healthcare. In particular, it focuses on demarcations to physical space, communal identity and within professional relationships in these sectors.

The first section describes the research that gave rise to the paper and the cases examined. Next we briefly define what we mean by boundaries. We explore issues that have emerged from our analysis of urban regeneration and health care singularly, before looking at how the concept of boundaries is a recurrent concern across the sectors. The main contribution of the paper is an exploration of how a CAS lens can bring a new insight into the concept of boundaries and decision-making in the two sets of case studies. This discussion will concentrate on initial conditions, bifurcation and adaptation as key CAS factors in relation to boundaries. We conclude with a brief discussion on the benefits of a CAS lens to an analysis of boundaries in public management decision-making.

Agranoff, R. and McGuire, M. (2003) Collaborative Public Management: Strategies for Local Government. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

Currie, G., Lockett, A. (2007) “A critique of transformational leadership: moral, professional & contingent dimensions of leadership within public services organizations”. Human Relations 60: 341-370.

Fitzsimmons and White, (1997) "Crossing boundaries: communication between professional groups", Journal of Management in Medicine, Vol. 11 Iss: 2, pp.96 – 101

Kaboolian, L. (1998) “The New Public Management: Challenging the Boundaries of the Management vs. Administration Debate” Public Administration Review Vol. 58, No. 3 pp.189-193

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Murtagh, B. (2002). The Politics of Territory: Policy and Segregation in Northern Ireland. Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Rhodes, ML, Joanne Murphy, Jenny Muir, John Murray (2011) Public Management & Complexity Theory: Richer Decision Making in Irish Public Services, UK: Routledge

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2013
EventXVII IRSPM Conference 10-12 April 2013, - Prague, Czech Republic
Duration: 10 Apr 201312 Apr 2013


ConferenceXVII IRSPM Conference 10-12 April 2013,
Country/TerritoryCzech Republic


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