Government’s analysis, assessment and research activities
Review: Steering in a Complex World

Government Communications DepartmentGovernment analysis, assessment and research activitiesMinistry of Finance
8.7.2020 9.53
Press release 475/2020

Examining the historical development of steering reveals that traditional forms of decision making and traditional steering instruments do not suffice in the modern world. Traditional steering is still useful in maintaining operative functions, but it alone does not strengthen cooperation and promote partnership on multiple levels.

This is stated in the Policy Brief review by researchers Pirkko Vartiainen, Harri Raisio, Niklas Lundström and Ville-Pekka Niskanen from the University of Vaasa. The review examines the mechanisms of Finnish public administration and administrative steering in the context of Finnish and international literature. The literary review analyses the development of steering from the perspective of complexity theory. The standpoint is that complexity theory provides tools for responding to the challenges of modern society and would help us to accept the fact that we live in a complex world. Therefore, steering should also adapt to the conditions that complexity sets.

In addition to current pluralistic approaches, the review delves into previous administrative paradigms, from the era of classical public administration up to the present day. The steering instruments utilised during different periods often overlap. And not without reason – they respond to the requirements of each period and adapt according to the possibilities available at the time.

Based on this standpoint, the review introduces the model of complexity-theoretical steering, according to which modern society requires both traditional steering instruments and new innovative and participatory steering processes. 

The model consists of three parts:

  1. The Operative System and operative steering mechanisms. These represent “traditional” steering instruments, such as regulative and resource-based instruments, which aim to maintain operative functions.
  2. The Initiative System and initiative steering instruments, whose informal and self-developing actions adapt to the changing environment as quickly as possible.
  3. The Adaptive Space, where the Operative and the Initiative Systems combine and adapt to the challenges of the complex world. Enabling steering applies the central ideas of both systems and creates new adaptive models of steering. In practice, this means applying phenomenon-based approaches, smart specialisation, deliberation and dialogue. 

Steering in a Complex World: A Review in the Finnish Context is a part of the implementation of the Government plan for analysis, assessment and research for 2019. The review was prepared by the University of Vaasa. Project partners include MDI Public, Demos Helsinki and Frisky & Anjoy.

Contact person: 

Pirkko Vartiainen, Professor, University of Vaasa tel. +358 294 498 349, pirkko.vartiainen(a)

The Government’s joint analysis, assessment and research activities (VN TEAS) produce data used to support decision-making, everyday operations and knowledge-based management. They are guided by the Government’s annual plan for analysis, assessment and research. The content of the reports published in the publication series of the Government’s analysis research and research activities is the responsibility of the producers of the data in question and does not necessarily represent the view of the Government.