Open Political Systems

Open political systems are able to adapt and respond to changes both within the society and external to it

The term open political system refers to political systems that have the characteristics of open systems in general; namely that they have a high degree of exchange with their environment and are normalized to respond to changes through feedback and adaptive capacity.1 Likewise, they are open in the sense of being able to include the distributed perspectives and interests of a wide section of the population into the decision-making process. Open political systems are dynamic in nature in recognizing the need to be responsive to changes within the external environment and to adapt to those changes. The open–closed political spectrum has become in recent years identified as a replacement to the traditional left-right spectrum to define the most important features to political systems in the age of globalization and increased interconnectivity.2
In a 2016 article in the Economist the author write; “From Warsaw to Washington, the political divide that matters is less and less between left and right and more and more between open and closed. Debates between tax-cutting conservative and free-spending social democrats have not gone away. But issues that cross traditional parties lines have grown more potent. welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural changes, or resist it?”3

Predictions and classifications based on traditional political distinctions are becoming less relevant in the rapidly changing world of globalization and the growing force of hyper-connectivity. From Spain and France to the USA incumbent political organizations based on the traditional spectrum are finding themselves less relevant to the issues that matter to people and increasingly are becoming displaced by those political movements who recognize a new set of concerns and interests that have moved to the forefront. Speaking at the inaugural meeting of the Open Government Partnership in Brasilia, a well-known politician stated “In the 21st century… the most significant divisions between nations will be not between East or West, nor over religion, so much as between open and closed societies. We believe that countries with open governments, open economy and open societies will increasingly flourish.” She when on to say that those countries that are closed to “change, ideas, cultures, and beliefs that are different from theirs will quickly find that in an internet world they will be left behind”4

The open-closed distinction to political systems is a recent alternative to the standard left–right system; especially used to describe the cleavage in political systems in Europe and North America in the 21st century. In this system, parties and voters are arranged on an axis from open – socially liberal and globalist – to closed – culturally conservative and protectionist. A political realignment along these lines across the Western world has been described by political scientists in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2008, the Great Recession and the European migrant crisis, with mainstream left-wing and right-wing political parties shifting or falling behind populist parties and independents. Examples of elections described as having been best interpreted along open-closed lines include the Brexit referendum, the elections of 2016-17 that took place in the United States, France, Austria, Poland and the Netherlands. From this perspective, the central political issues of our time – such as immigration, nationalism, international trade etc – are all issues of open and closed political systems.5

Closed Systems

Authoritarian regimes are examples of closed political systems in that they exclude the input of the majority of members into the decision-making process

To understand the distinction between open and closed political systems it is of value to first understand the distinction made between open and closed systems in general. The systems theorist Ludwig Bertalanffy describes two types of systems: open systems and closed systems. Closed systems are held to be isolated or closed off from their environment where the feedback mechanisms between the system and its environment are limited. This is typically the case due to a strong boundary separating the system and its environment. Closed systems have a strong boundary condition that separates the internal workings of the system from its external environment and limits the exchange of resources and information between them. The boundaries to closed system are largely impenetrable.6 With a strong boundary condition, limited influence from the environment and no perceived need for adaptation, in closed systems the emphasis is on internal structure. Within closed social organizations where interactions and information are transmitted almost exclusively within the organization, management analyze problems by examining the internal structure of the organization with little consideration of the external environment.6

Closed systems tend towards equilibrium over time, and this equilibrium is used to manage the system, where different forces are counterbalanced in order to maintain stability and structure. In the context of organizational management, this involves using various direct incentive mechanisms to exert an influence on the members in order for them to conform to the existing governance structures. In the absence of interaction with their environment closed systems lack adaptive capacity and can thus be seen to be more deterministic in their nature. Moreover, closed systems are generally static and do not provide room for multiple alternatives for accomplishing the same result.6 Closed organizations tend to hold internal efficiency and control as the highest goals.7 Unlike open systems, closed systems are dependent upon their separation from their environment; their boundary and the structure that maintains a fixed order within the system. If the exchange with the environment becomes too high such structures are rendered limited in their capacities.

Open systems are systems that allow interactions between their internal elements and the environment. An open system is defined as a system in exchange of matter, energy or information with its environment; continuously maintaining imports and exports, building-up and breaking-down its structure according to the information it receives from its environment. Open systems are dependent upon this feedback exchange with their environment. For example, all biological creatures are open systems in that they have to continuously maintain an exchange of energy, resources, and information with their environment.8 This gives rise to the capacity to adapt and respond to change within their environment and to grow over time; which is an emergent process. Open systems are characterized by a feedback exchange with their environment that enables them to adapt and respond through an internal self-organizing process. Where the information and resources received from the environment enable the elements within the system to self-organize into new structures that are better adapted to the environment and thus able to intercept more or better quality resources, which in turn enables them to continue to grow. In contrast to closed systems which are defined by their internal structure, open systems are defined by their exchange with their environment, that is to say, the processes through which they process inputs into outputs.8


Closed systems and open systems represent a continuum along which organizations are more open or less open to their environment. The key defining variable governing this degree of openness is the complexity of the environment in which the organization is situated. The effectiveness of all systems is relative to the environment they exist within and this is particularly true for social organizations and how they are managed.8 Close linear hierarchical forms of management work best in simpler environments where a finite amount of elements are interacting in a well defined linear fashion; where there is a low level of interconnectivity and interdependency and change is limited to a relatively low level.9

The historian Yuval Noah Harari illustrated this when he said: “The old 20th century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant and the real divide today is between global and national, or global or local, and you see it again all over the world that this is now the main struggle and we probably need completely new political models and completely new ways of thinking about politics. In essence what you can say is that we now have a global ecology, we have the global economy, but we have national politics and this doesn’t work together. This makes the political system ineffective because it has no control over the forces that shape our lives.”13

Globalization represents a new level of socioeconomic complexity and this is a central challenge facing national institutional systems that were designed for a more simple environment. While the political and economic environment remained relatively stable and simple the distinction was between ideology. As the world becomes more complex the cleft is growing between those organizations that can deal with that complexity and those that can not. Over the past couple of decades with the rise of globalization and information technology, national politics has become hollowed out as nations are increasingly required to operate within a global economy.14

In the face of increased complexity and global interconnectivity, at best national political systems have been made increasingly irrelevant. National political systems without the capacity to deal with the complexity of these global processes have been made increasingly irrelevant in the perception of the public. In the face of hyperconnectivity, political systems that have remained closed would appear more threatened and less stable. The boundaries and walls of closed political systems may hold out the rest of the world but they also hold up the ceiling. When the political organization is not yet ready for hyperconnectivity and globalization, then as the wall start to come down so too does the ceiling, threatening societal collapse in some instances. Openness also means transparency and as institutions become more transparent all of their failings become more apparent and people start to lose faith in them; whether this is with political systems and corruption; cultural institutions like the Catholic church or social institutions like the family.

Responding to Complexity

Increased interconnectivity driven by globalization and information technology is challenging to existing closed political systems, both democracies and authoritarian regimes

In general, open systems are potentially more effective at dealing with complexity due to a number of factors inherent to their design. They can potentially scale larger, they are normalized for nonlinearity, interdependence, interconnectivity and dynamically changing and unpredictable environments. Formal hierarchical closed sociopolitical systems are limited in their scale. As the author Clay Shirky’s notes in his book Here Comes Everybody15 closed organizations have both an upper and lower limit in their operating space; what is called a Coasean Ceiling and Coasean Floor. The Coasean Ceiling is the point above which the transaction costs of managing a standard institutional form prevent it from working well. institutions which grow too large hit the ceiling and become so unwieldy that the transaction costs of managing a standard institutional form prevent it from working well. Typically the largest hierarchical organizations are a few hundred thousand people – a very few are a million or two million – the idea of creating a closed form of hierarchical political system for the entire planet would seem virtually impossible due to too many levels of bureaucracy and the bottlenecks inherent in such centralized systems. Because open networked organizations are distributed they have limited bottlenecks and hierarchical levels this allows them to scale beyond that of hierarchies. Open platforms like Facebook currently interconnect up to two billion people. As long as the network is distributed there is no theoretical scaling limit. Inversely the Coasean Floor is the point below where the overhead costs are too large for the level of transactions taking place. The author argues that open online platforms drastically reduce transaction costs, allowing loosely structured groups with limited managerial oversight to operate under the Coasean Floor.

Closed systems have problems dealing with high levels of interconnectivity and interdependence.16 The closed sociopolitical organizations of the nation state that we developed over the modern era all had in common one big idea, that of independence; that they were sufficiently independent and could thus manage and control their internal affairs. National identity was maintained in the face of the other outside of the border. Independence, borders and the centralized regulatory apparatus of the government enabled policy systems to regulate their internal workings. But as interdependence increases, this means increasingly things that are outside of the control of the regulatory system affect it. This reduces its autonomy, credibility, and legitimacy to its people.

In environment where cross correlations of interdependence may traverse the whole environment and no single system can manage them this requires open platforms for interoperability to enable cross system governance. The greater the interdependence the more the requirements to manage phenomena that happen outside the borders of any specific political system and the greater any component in the system has to invest in the whole in order to get the desired results for itself. At a low level of interdependence one system can invest solely in itself to get ahead but the higher the interdependence the more it has to invest its resources in open common platforms to manage those eventualities outside of its immediate control. For example, the more the people of Europe’s hinterland can see what happens in Europe and the easier it is for them to move there, the more Europe has to care about what happens in those nations and build collaborative platforms with them so as to enable both to be successful.

In complex and dynamically changing environments the true measure of political systems is not what political program it adopts but instead how it responds to change. Fixed plans and ideologies may work within relatively closed systems with limited change. But in dynamic complex environments, the primary parameter to the success of the system is in how effective it is at aggregating the distributed intelligence and information of its citizens and converting that into the required changes. An open political system is one that recognizes the fact that the world changes and there is a requirement to adapt to those changes.16

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