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Tackling ‘Wicked’ Problems – A Public Policy Perspective


Wednesday, 24th July 2013 at 9:41 am
Lina Caneva, Editor
In today's Impact Opinion, Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham call for the private sector to be recognised as a key stakeholder and contributor in solving complex and ‘wicked’ social problems.

Wednesday, 24th July 2013
at 9:41 am
Lina Caneva, Editor


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Tackling ‘Wicked’ Problems – A Public Policy Perspective
Wednesday, 24th July 2013 at 9:41 am

In today's Impact Opinion, Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham call for the private sector to be recognised as a key stakeholder and contributor in solving complex and ‘wicked’ social problems.

In seeking to grow the field of Collective Impact in Australia we are constantly looking for evidence that cross sector collaboration is needed to tackle our most entrenched and complex social challenges.

This week we found support for our proposition in the archives of the Australian Public Service Commission.

In 2007, the then-Commissioner of the Australian Public Service – Lynelle Briggs – published a policy paper discussing the challenge of complexity and wicked problems in Australia.  Her paper is as relevant today as it was in 2007.  However, in this blog, we take her paper one step further and call for the private sector to be recognised as a key stakeholder and contributor in solving complex social problems.

In making her case for change, Briggs wrote:

“The Australian Public Service (APS) is increasingly being tasked with solving very complex policy problems. Some of these policy issues are so complex they have been called ‘wicked’ problems. The term ‘wicked’ in this context is used, not in the sense of evil, but rather as an issue highly resistant to resolution.

Successfully solving or at least managing these wicked policy problems requires a reassessment of some of the traditional ways of working and solving problems in the APS.  They challenge our governance structures, our skills base and our organisational capacity.

It is important, as a first step, that wicked problems be recognised as such. Successfully tackling wicked problems requires a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions.

Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art. They require thinking that is capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships among the full range of causal factors underlying them. They often require broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches. This may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment.

Wicked problems highlight the fundamental importance of the APS building on the progress that has been made with working across organisational boundaries both within and outside the APS. The APS needs to continue to focus on effectively engaging stakeholders and citizens in understanding the relevant issues and in involving them in identifying possible solutions.”

In recognizing that tackling wicked problems is an ‘evolving art’, Briggs provided a useful, non-exhaustive list of the required approach.

  • Holistic, not partial or linear thinking. This is thinking capable of grasping the big picture, including the interrelationships between the full range of causal factors underlying the wicked problem. Traditional linear approaches to policy formulation are an inadequate way to work with wicked policy problems as linear thinking is inadequate in encompassing their complexity, interconnections and uncertainty. There is an ever present danger in handling wicked issues that they are handled too narrowly. The shortcomings of traditional approaches to policy making are also due to the social complexity of wicked problems—the fact that a true understanding of the problem generally requires the perspective of multiple organisations and stakeholders and that any package of measures identified as a possible solution usually requires the involvement, commitment and coordination of multiple organisations and stakeholders to be delivered effectively.

  • Innovative and flexible approaches. It has been argued that the public sector needs more systematic approaches to social innovation and needs to become more adaptive and flexible in dealing with wicked problems. Ways that have been suggested to achieve these ends include investing resources in innovation similar to private sector research and 36 development (R&D), blurring the traditional distinction between policy development and programme implementation as one way of making it easier to modify policies in the light of experience about what works and what doesn’t, and focusing on creating learning organisations.

  • The ability to work across agency boundaries. Wicked problems go beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and respond to, and tackling them is one of the key imperatives that makes being successful at working across agency boundaries increasingly important. This includes working in a devolved way with the community and commercial sectors.

  • Increasing understanding and stimulating a debate on the application of the accountability framework. It is important that preset notions of the accountability framework do not constrain resolution of wicked problems. The accountability framework needs to be applied in a way that can meet the goal of maintaining acceptable levels of accountability while minimising as much as possible any barriers to innovation and collaboration. Internal governance arrangements also need to support this goal.

  • Effectively engaging stakeholders and citizens in understanding the problem and in identifying possible solutions. 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. If a resolution of a wicked issue requires changes in the way people behave, these changes cannot readily be imposed on people. Behaviours are more conducive to change if issues are widely understood, discussed and owned by the people whose behaviour is being targeted for change.

  • Additional core skills. The need to work across organisational boundaries and engage with stakeholders highlights some of the core skills required by policy and programme managers tackling wicked problems—communication, big picture thinking and influencing skills and the ability to work cooperatively. Traditionally, more weight has been placed on high-level analytical, conceptual and writing skills and traditional project management skills. While these skills are still fundamental parts of the policy toolkit, they are not sufficient. A multidisciplinary team approach is a practical way to garner all the required skills and knowledge for tackling wicked problems.

  • A better understanding of behavioural change by policy makers. This needs to be core policy knowledge because behavioural change is at the heart of many wicked problems and influencing human behaviour can be very complex. The traditional policy tools such as legislation, punishments and regulations, taxes and subsidies will generally form a core part of the overall strategy to achieve widespread, sustainable behavioural change. However, their effectiveness can be limited without some additional tools and understanding of how better to engage citizens in cooperative behavioural change.

  • A comprehensive focus and/or strategy. Successfully addressing wicked policy problems usually involves a range of coordinated and interrelated responses given their multi-causal nature and that they generally require sustained effort and/or resources to make headway.

  • Tolerating uncertainty and accepting the need for a long-term focus. Successfully tackling wicked problems requires a broad acceptance and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and that levels of uncertainty around the solutions to wicked problems need to be tolerated. Successfully addressing such problems takes time and resources and adopting innovative approaches may result in the occasional failure or need for policy change or adjustment.”

In articulating her case for change, Briggs provided examples of wicked problems – climate change, obesity, Indigenous disadvantage and land degradation.  She outlined the coordinated effort required by all levels of government and non-government organisations (NGOs) to make progress in these policy areas.  It is here we seek to build on her proposition.  

In all of these policy areas we argue that the private sector has a significant stake in the desired change.  In drawing on Briggs’ approach, we assert that it is insufficient for the private sector to be engaged only in ‘understanding the problem and in identifying possible solutions’.  Rather, the private sector must be involved in initiating and co-leading collaborative change processes, in co-creating and co-designing solutions, and in being key partners in the process of change.  

As Briggs says, we need a variety of skills and knowledge in order to tackle wicked problems.  The skills and knowledge inherent in Briggs’ approach are ones which the private sector has some expertise and experience.  In our view, the private sector has a critical part to play and a considerable amount to offer.

About the authors: Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham are working with the Centre for Social Impact and a growing group of partners to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.  They are developing three key initiatives – a collective impact practitioners network, a collective impact conference, and a competition to find and fund an emerging collective impact initiative with the greatest potential to shape social change.


Lina Caneva  |  Editor |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and Editor of Pro Bono Australia News since it was founded in 2000.

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