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Public sector applications of the system dynamics approach.


This special issue of Systems Research and Behavioral Science concerns the use of a particular systems approach--system dynamics--and its application to a particular problem domain--the public sector. It is clear from the works that created system dynamics (e.g. Forrester, 1960, 1961) that the field did not emerge in the same manner as most systems approaches. Rather, it had its provenance in the area of servomechanism feedback theory, and was also strongly shaped by the practical stance of its engineering origins. However, studies of the influences that shaped system dynamics (e.g. Richardson, 1991; Lane, 2006, 2007) make it clear why it sits very happily within today's system sciences (see Jackson, 2000, 2003). In a similar way, though system dynamics is widely perceived as a systems approach usually applied to business problems, Forrester (Forrester, 1961, 1990) always makes it clear that system dynamics aspired to be applicable to all social systems, and public sector applications have followed naturally from this.

It was the application of system dynamics ideas to problems arising in the public sector that was the focus of the Fourth European System Dynamics Workshop (EUSDW-IV). This workshop was held at the University of Palermo, Italy in April 2009 and the content of this special edition consists of papers selected and developed from work presented there.


As a venue for a workshop which drew together system dynamicists from across Europe, Sicily was a very appropriate setting. Throughout history the geographical location of that island has exposed it to most of the forces and events that have swept through the Mediterranean. As part of Magna Graecia it was the location of the battle of Himera in 480 BCE, a clash between the developing power of Carthage and the Hellenic World. Some three centuries years later, during the Second Punic War, the Sicilian city of Syracuse was the location of a siege which saw not only the emergence of Roman as a major power but arguably, in the activities of Archimedes, the earliest use of a systems/operational research approach (Lane, in press). A thousand years later, the island came under Arab control and was subsequently conquered a century after that by mercenaries who founded the Norman Kingdom of Sicily after the decisive Battle of Palermo in 1072 (Fig. 1). In modern times, Palermo was the scene in 1860 of one of the rebellions against the rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and then the location of a battle involving forces lead by Giuseppe Garibaldi, both important events in the unification of Italy. Today Palermo is the main conurbation on the island, a bustling, cosmopolitan city whose architecture reflects the cultures and people who have flowed through Sicily, a place of commerce and art, the later being reflected in the impressive Teatro Massimo (Fig. 2). Palermo is the administrative centre of the Sicilian regional government, an area which - though part of the Republic of Italy--proudly retains its distinctive features.


The combination of a variety of perspectives each with distinctive strengths can be seen in the European system dynamics community and EUSDW-IV offered a forum in which they could draw together. The first such occasion was the work of Peter Milling and Andreas Grossler from the Universitat Mannheim, Germany. They were the organizers in 2003 of a pan-European meeting, from which emerged a special issue of this journal on the topic of 'Rationality in System Dynamics: Modelling Human and Organizational Decision Making' (Lane et al., 2004). A subsequent meeting was hosted by Radboud University, Nijmegen in The Netherlands in 2005, the chosen topic being 'System Dynamics in Organizational Consultation: Modelling for Intervening in Organizations' (Lane et al., 2006). In 2007 the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland was home to a third workshop which centred on 'Theory Building with System Dynamics' and which produced a further special issue (Lane and Schwaninger, 2008).


The Palermo meeting was therefore the fourth in a continuing sequence of workshops which offers an opportunity for system dynamics researchers spread across Europe to meet with each other and discuss their ideas and work. To assist this aim the Mannheim meeting used a particular format which has been employed subsequently. A workshop theme is chosen by the local organizers and they invite colleagues known to be working in or interested in that area. What is then presented ranges from projects in an advanced state of development, to research topics beginning to emerge. Written articles from the speakers are circulated to participants before the workshop in order to encourage full participation. Additionally, a 'Discussant' is allocated to each paper, allowing that person to adopt the role of detailed commentator.

The hosts for EUSDW-IV were Carmine Bianchi and Enzo Bivona. Their group at Universita degli Studi di Palermo has a well-developed profile amongst European system dynamicists. It offers its own system dynamics degrees (ranging from a one-year Master to a Ph.D. in Public Management) as well as an annual Summer School on system dynamics applied to public management issues (1) and organized the 2002 international system dynamics conference (see Davidsen et al., 2002). The University of Palermo is also one of the four locations forming the network of institutions which offer the new Masters degree in system dynamics. (2) Research and teaching in the group centre particularly on SMEs and public sector work (see Bianchi, 2002, 2009) and the group has excellent connections with colleagues working in these areas across Sicily and beyond.


The workshop was held over a day and a half. As an indicator of the excellent relationships between the system dynamics group and its city, on the evening before the formal start of activities, participants were the guests of the Teatro Massimo. In the comfort of their own box, they were able to attend an exquisitely staged production of Erich Korngold's dark opera 'Die tote Stadt'. Moreover, the workshop itself included a paper jointly authored by Carmine Bianchi and Antonio Cognata (General Manager of the Massimo Theatre), on the management of this elite arts institution.

The workshop proper was held at the Faculty of Political Sciences, located in the centre of Palermo. Each paper was allocated a long session. The author or authors first presented their ideas, the designated discussant following this with detailed comments and, finally, all participants at the workshop were encouraged to contribute views and advice (Figs. 3 and 4). Markus Schwaninger, the host of EUSDW-III was present and at the close of the special issue his comments provide a further perspective on the event.

Whilst these workshops are events in themselves, some of the work was taken forward into the refereeing process of this journal. As a result, the guest editors offer here a selection of papers given at EUSDW-IV and developed further as a result of input from participants to it. As in previous special issues, included here are comments from the discussants on the research papers. The aim of doing this is to provide a sense of the debate and comment at the workshop, as well as offering different perspectives on the topic of each of the papers and, in consequence, on the general theme of the workshop.



As mentioned earlier, although system dynamics' main presence is arguably in the area of business, the public sector has also been a highly fruitful area of application. The public sector has particular features and problems which are well suited to system dynamics-based work. For example, many of the co-ordination and negotiation problems inherent in complex tasks can, in the commercial sector, be referred to market mechanisms to achieve 'solutions'. Whilst this is not absent from the public sector--partly because it interacts with commercial firms and partly because of the introduction of 'internal markets'--nevertheless, many activities quite alien to commercial organizations are inherent to public sector organizations. Policing is but one example: it must be provided to all citizens--not just the customers one has chosen to deal with-imposed on some (whilst care for their civic rights is exercised), desired by most and funded by all, yet free at the point of delivery. Indeed, from the perspective of operational research, there is an interesting link here between the sort of narrow 'technical' problems addressed by Hard OR and the broader, more human relations-orientated issues which are the interest of Soft OR (Rosenhead, 1989). In this volume Lane (2010) follows this thought further by suggesting that particpative modelling is particularly useful in such 'public' problems. Similarly, Grossler (2010) argues that the general requirement that modelling work attend to an organization's 3Ps (policies, politics and polity) takes on a new degree of significance in public sector activities. Generally, the range of issues and stakeholders involved in public sector situations makes for complex dynamic problems, and so constitutes a well-chosen organizing theme for the workshop.

This special issue offers a set of contributions to this area, consisting of research papers, discussants' comments and research notes. In three of the pieces there is a strong connection with Sicily itself, with contributions on the administrative context of public policy work as well as a diverse range of case studies. After this editorial, the special issue therefore contains the following:

(1) The scene is set by the paper 'Improving Performance and Fostering Accountability in the Public Sector Through System Dynamics Modelling: From an "External" to an "Internal" perspective' by Carmine Bianchi. He offers a theoretical analysis of how the public sector must be understood both from different perspectives and at different levels of analysis if effective contributions are to be made, and provides two case studies of his ideas in action. The Discussant's Comments that follow are by Andreas Grossler.

(2) This is followed by an unusual but welcome piece, 'The Sicilian Region experience with regard to planning and control' in which senior civil servant Mauro Lo Tennero describes the structure and aspiration of the organization used by the government of Sicily to implement public policy.

(3) The paper 'Applying System Dynamics to Foster Organizational Change, Accountability and Performance in the Public Sector: A Case-based Italian Perspective' offers a kaleidoscope of the region. It draws on university academics at Palermo and elsewhere in Italy to present three pieces of work, involving water companies, the funding of healthcare provision, and arts management. Moreover, there is direct involvement by two public sector managers; the Superintendent of the Massimo Theatre and the Controller of UPMC-Ismett Hospital, Palermo. Graham Winch provides a commentary.

(4) In his research paper 'What Can System Dynamics Learn from the Public Policy Implementation Literature?' David Wheat adopts a broader perspective, drawing on his US public policy experience to address the titular question and illustrating his argument by presenting some public health examples. Jim Duggan provides discussant comments.

(5) The paper by Nuno Videira and his co-researchers, 'A Participatory Modelling Approach to Support Integrated Sustainability Assessment Processes', argues that group model building can be used in the public sector to agree sustainable policies. They present a framework for advancing this agenda. Discussant's comments are by David Lane.

The afterword by Markus Schwaninger brings the special edition to a close.

We hope that this collection will be of interests to a wide range of individuals: researchers and practitioners in system science, system dynamics and operational research, management and public policy.

DOI: 10.1002/sres.1049


The guest editors thank those who made this special edition possible:

* Mike Jackson and Amanda Gregory for inviting us to produce this special issue and for their constant support for the European System Dynamics workshops.

* The effective running of the 2009 EuSDW-IV workshop involved the organizational efforts of a number of people and we are very grateful to them for all of their work. We would also like to offer our particular thanks to the Teatro Massimo for its generous hospitality in hosting the opera visit referred to previously.

* The unnamed referees involved in producing this special edition. Although the workshop was Europe-based, the refereeing process drew on the world-wide community of systems science, operational research and system dynamics researchers and we are grateful to them for this anonymous but nevertheless vital assistance.

* Janet Larkin of the Department of Coin and Medals and Lesley Fitton of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, both of the British Museum, London provided the image upon which the symbol used for the workshop series is based. The owl is taken from the reverse side of a silver tetradrachm made in Athens around 480 BC. CM 1906-11-3-2591. Copyright British Museum, London. The Athenian owl symbol for the series of European System Dynamics Workshops was designed and created by David Lane.

* Finally, what is now identified as the first European System Dynamics Workshop was the work of Andreas Grossler and Peter Milling, and occurred in Mannheim in March 2003. We are grateful to them for this innovation and for their creation of a sound format for the workshops.


Bianchi C. 2002. Special issue on: systems thinking and system dynamics in small-medium enterprises. System Dynamics Review 18(3): 311-429.

Bianchi C. 2009. Modelli di System Dynamics per il miglioramento della performance aziendale: Verso un sistema di programmazione e controllo per lo sviluppo sostenibile. Ipsoa, Milan.

Davidsen PI, Mollona E, Diker VG, Langer RS, Rowe JI (eds). Proceedings of the 2002 International System Dynamics Conference, Palermo, Italy (CD-based). System Dynamics Society: Albany, NY, 2002.

Forrester JW. 1960. The impact of feedback control concepts on the management sciences. In Collected Papers of Jay w. Forrester (1975 Collection). Wright-Allen Press: Cambridge, MA; 45-60.

Forrester JW. 1961. Industrial Dynamics. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Forrester JW. 1990. System dynamics: adding structure and relevance to pre-college education. In Shaping the Future, Manning KR (ed.). MIT Press: Cambridge, MA; pp. 118-131.

Grossler A. 2010. Policies, politics, and polity: comment on the paper by Bianchi. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27(4): 385-389.

Jackson MC. 2000. Systems Approaches to Management. Kluwer/Plenum: New York.

Jackson MC. 2003. Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers. Wiley: Chichester.

Lane DC. 2006. IFORS' operational research hall of fame: Jay Wright Forrester. International Transactions in Operational Research 13: 483-492.

Lane DC. 2007. The power of the bond between cause and effect: Jay Wright Forrester and the field of system dynamics. System Dynamics Review 23: 95-118.

Lane DC. 2010. Participative modelling and big issues: defining features of system dynamics? Systems Research and Behavioral Science 27(4): 461-465.

Lane DC. (in press). High leverage interventions: three cases of defensive action and their lessons for OR/ MS today. Operations Research.

Lane DC, Grossler A, Milling PM. 2004. Rationality in system dynamics: modelling human and organizational decision making. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 21(4): 313-317.

Lane DC, Rouwette EAJA, Vennix JAM. 2006. System dynamics in organizational consultation: modelling for intervening in organizations. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23(4): 443-449.

Lane DC. Schwaninger. 2008. Theory building with system dynamics: topic and research contributions. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 25(4): 439-445.

Richardson GP. 1991. Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory. University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia.

Rosenhead J. 1989. Introduction: old and new paradigms of analysis. In Rational analysis for a problematic world: problem structuring methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict, Rosenhead J (ed.). Wiley: Chichester; pp. 1-20.

(1) For further details see the CED4-System Dynamics Group web page:

(2) For further details see of this degree see:

David C. Lane [1] *, Carmine Bianchi [2] and Enzo Bivona [2]

[1] London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK

[2] CED4 System Dynamics Group, University of Palermo, Palermo, Italy

* Correspondence to: Dr David C. Lane, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK E-mail:

([dagger]) Selected Papers from the Fourth European System Dynamics Workshop, at University of Palermo, Italy
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Author:Lane, David C.; Bianchi, Carmine; Bivona, Enzo
Publication:Systems Research and Behavioral Science
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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