We’re still tackling those wicked issues
George Jones and John Stewart
Local government confronts a series of ‘wicked*’ issues. Wicked is not used in the sense of evil, but as a mathematician might use the word to denote an unsolved and hard-to-resolve problem.
A wicked issue is one imperfectly understood, to which solutions are not clear. It signifies an intractable problem.
Wicked issues include:
- the environmental, with the objective of sustainable development
- crime, with the objective of a safer society
- discrimination, with the objective of a fairer society
- social exclusion, with the objective of more fulfilling lives
- new and emerging threats to health, with the objective of overcoming them
- countering terrorism, with the objective of a secure society.
A wicked issue can be contrasted with a ‘tamed’ issue, which is a problem easily understood, to which solutions are clear, and which can then be clearly allocated to a department in an organisation or to a division within it.
Staff can be trained to deal with the issue, applying approaches which have been developed to resolve it. The issue has been safely tamed. A wicked issue cannot be allocated to particular organisations or agencies with any confidence they can resolve it on their own, even though they have formal responsibility for dealing with it.
Through the allocation of such responsibility, a department may think it alone can solve the problem, but it cannot. Thus, while the police are charged with combating crime, many other institutions, including local authorities, are required to take action if crime is to be reduced. Further, because the solutions are not clear, the organisations which could contribute to resolving the problem may not be known.
A local authority, when dealing with the environmental issue, could allocate responsibility to a particular department – the planning department or the environmental health department. But the danger is they will see the issue only in planning or environmental-health terms.
A new department could be created and called the environmental department. The danger is this department’s staff will see the issue as their issue, in effect saying to other departments, ‘Keep out, this is our issue’. But, until the issue has been tamed, the department members cannot know how their skills can help resolve the issue, or what contributions are needed from others.
A wicked issue cannot be confined to a particular department. Many departments have contributions to make. Nor is it only the local authority that is concerned with the environmental issue at local level. Health authorities, water companies and even the police are among those who could contribute to resolving environmental problems.
This issue has to be dealt with across organisations and authorities, and at many levels. Characteristically wicked issues cannot be resolved by single organisations, because it is not clear what skills and responsibilities are required.
It is, however, a mistake to assume that all issues which are the concern of different organisations are wicked issues. They are wicked not because of the different organisations involved, but because of their intractability. A tamed issue can involve several organisations, but because it is tamed, the requirements from each organisation are clear and understood. The distinctive problem of wicked issues is uncertainty about what is required.
Wicked issues are prominent in local government and the politics of our turbulent times. In local government, 40 years ago, there was certainty about the problems faced and their solutions, normally through the best professional practice of the day. The issues were tamed. High flats, many of them now demolished, were potent symbols of the government of certainty. Yet solutions of the past have become problems of the present.
Uncertainty about the actions of governments has grown. Our society, rapidly changing on many dimensions, brings new challenges, because the interactions between changes can have effects which are not reflected in the certainties of trend projections. Wicked issues present government and society with problems full of uncertainty.
The government of uncertainty is best done by innovation, and by learning that seeks to deepen understanding. While wicked issues cannot be resolved with our present understanding, advances can be made, provided government is open to the lessons learned from innovation, and is always aware that action need not be limited to those bodies allocated responsibility for the issue.
It is not possible to specify in a pre-determined strategy the detailed actions required to deal with wicked issues, as one can with tamed issues.
Such strategies imply a certainty not found in sensible responses to wicked issues. What is needed is a variety of actions by different organisations, either individually or with others, but always with awareness of each other’s actions and their impact, so that lessons can be learned. The necessary strategy is to enable learning, allowing for change after assessing the lessons from experience. Local government is well-situated to handle wicked issues. The special contribution of local authorities can be demonstrated in their handling of wicked issues, in particular, and of the government of uncertainty in general.
Local government is the government of difference, responding to different conditions in different areas, and in the communities within them, and in devising different responses to the aspirations of their citizens and to the different characteristics of the political processes that guide local decision-making. The contrast is with central government and its agencies that promote uniformities. One may learn little from imposing a uniform solution, except that one has made a mistake everywhere. And even if one is relatively successful, one cannot know whether enough has been achieved. Central government applies one favoured approach everywhere. Whereas, through local government, as the government of difference, a range of innovations can develop, as different ideas are pursued in different areas.
Learning develops, and understanding is deepened, by the differing impacts of different approaches in different areas.
From this variety of experience, both local and central government, and society generally, can learn. In this way advances can be made in handling wicked issues, gradually and step-by-step. The challenge of wicked issues makes the case for local government, and for a central-local relationship based on shared learning rather than on the constraints of centralised command and control which limit both innovation and the learning that comes with innovation.
*The word ‘wicked’ to describe problems faced by government was first used by two American writers, H Rittel and M Webber, in the early 1970s. The concept reached this country in the 1990s, with the help of one of the writers of this article, John Stewart.
George Jones is emeritus professor of government at the LSE, and John Stewart is emeritus professor at INLOGOV
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