I recently stumbled across a fantastic publication, one that ought to be on the reading list for anyone working in the business of change.

It published by the Australian Public Service Commission and carries its authority. The author(s) are anonymous, but they have done a beautiful job of crisply summarising a literature and critically assessing its huge implications for government.

Firstly, what are “wicked problems”? 

Wicked problems are complex multi-dimensional problems like indigenous  health, climate change, catchment management, and school bullying. In fact, practically every problem we deal with in environment or health is a wicked problem.

Wicked problems:

– are difficult to define (it depends on who is asked);

– are often unstable…(understandings evolve over time, presenting a moving target);

– have many interdependencies and causes;

– have no clear solution (solutions “are not verifiably right or wrong, but rather better or worse or good enough” (p4) and solutions often have unforseen consequences);

– are socially complex (“it is the social complexity of wicked problems, rather than their technical complexity, that overwhelms most current problem-solving and project management approaches p4”);

– hardly ever conveniently sit within the responsibilities of one organisation;

– involve changing peoples’ behaviours;

– are characterised by chronic policy failure.

Stumbling upon this publication was timely because I was just writing up recommendations for organisational change in the Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority. It handed me a really useful framework for assessing the organisation’s capacity as a change agency.

It’s this: An effective change agency should exhibit seven capacities:

1) Capacity for innovation;

2) Capacity for learning and adaptive management;

3) Capacity to work across silos, in multi-disciplinary teams;

4) Capacity to collaborate with multiple stakeholders and the public in understanding problems and devising and implementing solutions;

5) Capacity to influence the behaviours of stakeholders and the public;

6) Staff capacity in communication, big picture thinking, influencing others and the ability to work cooperatively. 

7) Capacity to critically review accountability frameworks.

Of course, as soon as you think about these capacities, it’s obvious why of most government agencies and local councils are hopeless at tackling difficult problems. The authors say this so much more diplomatically:

“A traditional bureaucracy, divided into vertical silos, in which most of the authority for resolving problems rests at the top of the organisation, is not well-adapted to support the kinds of process necessary for addressing the complexity and ambiguity of wicked problems. Bureaucracies tend to be risk averse, and are intolerant of messy processes. They excel at managing issues with clear boundaries rather than ambiguous, complex issues that may require experimental and innovative approaches.” (p13)

In short, if you want to change the world you can’t afford be a traditional, hierarchically managed, value-free, service-delivery agency like a Department or local Council. You just can’t. You need to be small, nimble, passionate, and happy to “fail informatively”. CMAs are one promising model; PCPs (Primary Care Partnerships in Victoria) are another; Alliancing is another (used for large infrastructure projects); outsourcing to NGOs like Landcare groups and local Environmental Centres is another.

Here are some nice quotes from Tackling Wicked Problems:

“Because of social complexity, solving a wicked problem is fundamentally a social process. Having a few brilliant people or the latest project management technology is no longer sufficient.” (p28, quoting Conklin, L. 2006)

“It has been argued that the public sector needs to adopt more systematic approaches to social innovation as opposed to the current rather ad hoc approach: ‘How many departments or agencies have a board level director responsible for innovation..? How many have significant budgets for innovation..? How many can point to the flow of new models in their service that are being cultivated, developed, improved and tested.’” (p13, quoting Mulgan G. 2006)

“A concomitant condition to increasing adaptability is 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.” (p15)

“Critically, tackling wicked problems also calls for high levels of systems thinking. This big picture thinking helps policy makers to make the connections between the multiple causes and interdependencies of wicked problems that are necessary in order to avoid a narrow approach and artificial taming of wicked problems…A multi-disciplinary team approach is one practical way to garner all the required skills and knowledge for tackling any particular wicked problem.” (p33)

“Collaborative strategies are the best approach to tackling wicked problems which require behavioural change as part of the solution.” (p10) 

“The fact is 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.” (p11)

“Is the requirement to tightly specify programme outputs and outcomes useful in an environment where even defining the problem and solution is difficult?” (p23) 

“There is increasing evidence that some types of pre-set performance measures, especially lower-level indicators, may undermine the responsiveness of the delivery of complex services and could even distort or constrict the services by making the indicator (or the target) rather than the service the focus of provision. In the case of devolved services both service providers and service users can find themselves playing second fiddle to programme reporting regimes.” (p24)
Australian Public Service Commission (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems – A Public Policy Perspective, downloadable from www.apsc.gov.au/publications07/wickedproblems.htm