Wicked Problems in Public Policy

    Brian W Head,The University of Queensland

    Public managers are considering a range of strategies to increase public sector capacity and effectiveness for dealing with complex and intractable problems. Both the traditional bureaucratic focus on authoritative processes to resolve issues, and the modern NPM focus on greater efficiency in achieving outputs, have been widely used. Each of these has important limitations when dealing with problem-complexity and attempting to manage issues that are marked by divergent expectations. In some circumstances, not all leaders wish to adopt a problem-solving stance, with attendant risks of failure. Some prefer to steer towards calmer waters rather than tackle the wild rivers. In one sense, this is simply to recognize two ongoing truths of public policy – the inherently political nature of decision-making, and the impossibility of resolving all problems through government activity.

    The three most widely recommended approaches to wicked problems – better knowledge, better consultation, and better use of third-party partners –deserve closer attention in future research. Investment in more research to address gaps in knowledge is necessary, especially in relation to understanding causal links; since better knowledge can contribute both to ‘evidence-informed’ policy and to good processes for increasing the scope of consensus. Such knowledge should address institutional and social structures, processes and relationships as well as knowledge about attitudes, values and cultural expectations. Knowledge needs to be more than the documentation of deficiencies (which might provide an impetus towards problem attention). The emphasis needs to shift towards developing and disseminating knowledge about innovative approaches with strong prospects of success. Program evaluations and pilot schemes that assess the effectiveness of current and previous interventions could be very useful sources of applied knowledge, providing that key decision makers are willing and able to learn from experience and that evaluation reports are publicly released. However, ‘more’ knowledge, even if well targeted, is never sufficient to manage the politics of complexity.

    The widely recommended strategy of more effective consultation and closer ‘collaboration’ among stakeholders as a process solution is also important. It is essential that consultation be regarded as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event. But rigorous consultation and dialogue might not be sufficient to achieve progress in tackling some intractable problems that require good social analysis as well as improved consensus formation and exchange of information among stakeholders. Sometimes the ‘best’ policy strategies may require very detailed analyses of complex causality, in order to gain a clearer picture of how processes and proposed interventions are inter-linked. This understanding could be a useful precursor to stakeholder dialogues.

    There is increasing reliance on third parties (e.g. NGOs and corporations) to develop programs to address ‘difficult’ and dependent groups, especially in the human services. There is an assumption that outsourcing service delivery (‘contestability’) will tap into innovative and cost effective ideas and new service delivery skills. However, the quality and shaping of such programs depend largely on public sector budget models and program design. Thus, innovation is constrained by the prescription of specific ‘funded outputs’ for clients, service standards for many areas, and workforce quality issues.

    The fundamental challenge for researchers is to develop new thinking about the multiple causes of problems, opening up new insights about the multiple pathways and levels required for better solutions, and gaining broad stakeholder acceptance of shared strategies and processes. New strategic thinking needs to be championed within the public sector. This requires organizational learning and cultural change – perhaps a bridge too far for most government agencies, which are obliged to expend almost all their energy on immediate tasks to ensure delivery of their budgeted outputs. The public agencies cannot be expected to move to a different paradigm without the insight, support and long-term commitment of political leaders. It is too easy to blame the risk-averse organizational culture of public agencies for our lack of innovation. Public managers need to be encouraged by farsighted political leaders who are capable of working effectively with the business and community sectors in developing new approaches to major issues.