Local communities need ownership of ‘wicked’ problems

profileimargePolicy problems in an era of austerity can appear to be stacked against local practitioners. Increasingly faced with a series of targets or ‘nudges’ from above, practitioners with limited resources are under pressure to do more-for-less.

On top of the problem of demand management and ‘broken’ public services, many policy puzzles display a great deal of complexity.

The concern for practitioners is that issues are ‘complex’, not ‘complicated’. The latter implies that solutions are difficult to implement but nevertheless produce a predictable outcome.

A ‘complex’ issue, meanwhile, is one that holds a significant amount of interdependence with other issues that practitioners have to deal with and, therefore, is characterised by unpredictable outcomes.

However, policy problems are rarely just ‘complex’. Often they also show high levels of uncertainty in relation to risks and divergence in viewpoints, values and strategic intentions.

What happens when you combine a large amount of ‘complexity’, ‘uncertainty’ and ‘divergence’ into one problem? The outcome is what is known as a ‘wicked’ problem.

A ‘wicked’ problem is what practitioners deal with when the closure

of libraries has hidden effects on civic engagement and education

A wicked problem is, for Tim Curtis of the University of Northampton, ‘a social problem in which the various stakeholders can barely agree on what the definition of the problem should be, let alone on what the solution is’.

‘[Wicked] problems have no definitive formulation; no point at which it is definitely solved; solutions are not true or false; there is no test for a solution; every solution contributes to a further social problem’.

This is what practitioners deal with when the closure of public libraries has hidden effects on civic engagement and education, or when the launch of alternative service delivery vehicles damages trust and co-operation with citizens in the long run.

More worryingly, it raises the question: what hope do we have of changing the system – to ‘fix’ our public services – when the problems can’t even be agreed on?

The answer is that solving ‘wicked’ problems and achieving systemic change of the kind proposed by New Start can in fact go hand-in-hand.

In some cases the key challenge is to unpack and discuss entrenched differences of view. One attempt to solve this in local government is UnMentoring, a project starting in March 2015.

This scheme assigns each person who signs up somebody with whom they can have a conversation of between 30 minutes and one hour. The selection process is random and occurs monthly among all those who make the commitment. Launched by LocalGov digital, it aims to reveal ‘links within and outside of the organisation’ and encourage collaboration. It is open to ‘anyone who is interested in building and improving local public services’.

Going deeper into solving ‘wicked’ problems, however, requires an approach that looks beyond tackling divergent expectations within the system towards changing the configuration of the system itself.

Lynelle Briggs, of the Australian Public Service Commission, states that ‘wicked problems require innovative, comprehensive solutions that can be modified in the light of experience and on-the-ground feedback’.

What this entails is the devolution of decision-making to local groups and communities.

‘Because wicked problems are often imperfectly understood it is important that they are widely discussed by all relevant stakeholders in order to ensure a full understanding of their complexity and interconnections. Behaviours are more conducive to change if issues are widely understood, discussed and owned by the people whose behaviour is being targeted for change’.

The way of achieving ‘more-with-less’, then, starts with local groups and communities owning ‘wicked’ problems, recognising them as ‘wicked’, and responding to them in context. Most of all, it starts with the problem and works outwards from there.


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