Solving Wicked Problems

Our world is becoming increasingly complex, and so are the problems we seek to tackle. Solving wicked problems meet the very definition of the word ‘complex’ – with wicked meaning “highly resistant to resolution” rather than evil. Wicked problems are so complicated and dependent on so many factors, it is often hard to even grasp what the cause of a wicked problem is, let alone solve it. As Kumlein and Coughlan put it, “wicked problems are like a tangled mess of string – it is hard to know which thread to pull first”. 

Chronic policy failure is a common characteristic of wicked problems. They are seemingly intractable – despite numerous attempts to solve them. Many contemporary issues such as climate change, obesity, indigenous disadvantage, rising inequality and so on, are examples of wicked problems. 

Public frustration with the failure to address these issues puts extra pressure on public servants who want to solve them. Wicked problems present a unique challenge, as – due to their complexity – they:

  • are beyond the capability of any one department or agency to solve, 
  • suffer from differing opinions on causation, and
  • require the management of a broad range of stakeholders. 

How do we tackle solving wicked problems?

Traditional consultation or problem-solving approaches are not sufficient to either understand nor deal with wicked problems. In “Wicked Problems and Network Approaches to Resolution”, Nancy Roberts warns against using “experts” or “authoritarian power” to tame wicked problems. Instead, a collaborative approach is the most effective strategy for tackling wicked problems. Walking through a real-world example of relief and recovery efforts in Afghanistan, Roberts found that:

Wicked problems are social.

It is social complexity rather than technical complexity that makes wicked problems overwhelming. They require predominantly social rather than technical solutions. This means that any solution designed externally is likely to fail. Carefully curated stakeholder engagement will be required to find and implement solutions;

Dealing with wicked problems requires a delicate balance. 

There are very real differences that separate stakeholders. Ignoring or attempting to minimise these differences does not make them disappear. Solutions must therefore encompass stakeholders’ varied preferences, backgrounds, educational experiences, organisational affiliations, and so on.

“Muddling through” won’t cut it

Calling a consultative approach “engagement” does not make it more effective. In practice, it often produces less benefit for everyone involved. Especially if it is not clear how inputs will be used by policymakers. It has become common practice to simply ask for feedback on a designed solution rather than taking a collaborative approach from the very start. This just isn’t enough. A program of carefully designed and facilitated interactions is needed to yield practical, actionable results.

Engagement must go beyond consultation

To solve wicked problems requires an engagement design which reflects the definition of the term ‘engagement’. It’s not enough to throw a survey or issues paper online and expect to find the right answers. The engagement design itself should come from a collaboration with representative stakeholders across the spectrum of the issue. This is important to ensure it reflects the needs of stakeholders and acknowledges their ability to contribute to the solution. In his work on systems analysis, Professor H. Rittel contends that those who are affected by wicked problems “ought not be merely consulted, but actively involved in the solution”. This is particularly relevant where the solution to the problem involves behavioural change on the part of many citizens and/or stakeholders. 

Australia’s response to HIV/AIDS

A world-leading example of a collaborative approach leading to the effective resolution of a wicked problem is the Australian Government’s handling of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis. Affected communities (such as gay men, sex workers and people who inject drugs), the government and health sector collaborated to develop policies and programs. Though controversial at the time, this collaboration led to the implementation of innovative and widely successful public health strategies, such as anonymous sexual health clinics, condom vending machines, needle and syringe exchange programs, and most importantly, frank public education regarding the risk factors of HIV transmission. Characterised by tolerance, innovation, agility and partnership, these strategies helped Australia achieve and maintain one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in the world.

Are you solving a wicked problem?

Many of the most pressing policy challenges for decision-makers involve solving wicked problems. Effective, innovative stakeholder engagement is the core competency needed in organisations tackling wicked problems. Policymakers may have excellent ideas on how to solve many of the wicked problems mentioned. However, without widespread understanding of and support for any solutions proposed, strategies based on them will not work. If we want to inspire the consensus and action required to solve the wicked problems we so desperately want to address, policymakers must become experts in collaboratively designing and effectively managing stakeholder and citizen engagement.

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