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Tackling Wicked Problems

July 24, 2013

CREDIT: Eddie (CC).


Many of the most pressing policy challenges for the Australian Public Service involve dealing with very complex problems. These problems share a range of characteristics—they go beyond the capacity of any one organization to understand and respond to, and there is often disagreement about the causes of the problems and the best way to tackle them. These complex policy problems are sometimes called "wicked" problems.

Usually, part of the solution to wicked problems involves changing the behavior of groups of citizens or all citizens. Other key ingredients in solving or at least managing complex policy problems include successfully working across both internal and external organizational boundaries and engaging citizens and stakeholders in policy making and implementation.

Wicked problems require innovative, comprehensive solutions that can be modified in the light of experience and on-the-ground feedback. All of the above can pose challenges to traditional approaches to policy making and program implementation. There are numerous examples of wicked policy problems, including:

  • Climate change is a pressing and highly complex policy issue involving multiple causal factors and high levels of disagreement about the nature of the problem and the best way to tackle it. The motivation and behavior of individuals is a key part of the solution as is the involvement of all levels of government and a wide range of non-government organizations (NGOs).

  • Obesity is a complex and serious health problem with multiple factors contributing to its rapid growth over recent decades. How to successfully address obesity is subject to debate but depends significantly on the motivation and behaviour of individuals and, to a lesser degree, on the quality of secondary health care. Successful interventions will require coordinated efforts at the federal, state and local government levels and the involvement of a range of NGOs.

  • Indigenous disadvantage is an ongoing, seemingly intractable issue but it is clear that the motivation and behaviour of individuals and communities lies at the heart of successful approaches. The need for coordination and an overarching strategy among the services and programs supported by the various levels of government and NGOs is also a key ingredient.

  • Land degradation is a serious national problem. Given that around 60 percent of Australia's land is managed by private landholders, it is clear that assisting and motivating primary producers to adopt sustainable production systems is central to preventing further degradation, achieving rehabilitation and assisting in sustainable resource use. All levels of government are involved in land use as is a range of NGOs.

This discussion paper explores the characteristics of wicked problems and the challenges they pose for the traditional approaches and skills sets of policy makers. Although developing effective ways to tackle wicked problems is an evolving art, this paper identifies some of the main ingredients that seem to be required.

External Link: CONTINUE READING: Tackling Wicked Problems

Read More: Agriculture, Culture, Democracy, Environment, Food, Health, Sustainability, Australia, Asia, Global, Oceania

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