Wicked Problems and the Public Sector

wicked problems and the public sector

Being in the business of public sector transformation isn’t easy. Due to sheer scale the public sector is locked in to systemic models which are struggling to deliver one-size-fits-all services to an ever growing population of people who have varied needs and expectations. Every problem you try to solve is part of a huge interconnected web of interdependent organisations and services. I sometimes think of the public sector as being like a child’s spinning top slowly losing momentum. In the early to middle part of the 20th century, the top started spinning, it was small, neatly ordered, balanced, and it span elegantly. Over time the top got larger, bits started to be added on, it became less balanced, and its spin became slower. Today the top is still spinning, but it’s starting to wobble. We are currently at a critical point and if we can’t redress the balance, the spinning top will fall over – the problem is that we have to do it without stopping it, and that’s precisely why public service transformation isn’t easy.

The public sector, perhaps, hasn’t so much evolved as mutated over the years. Over time, bits have been bolted on and changes made to specific parts with little or no consideration for how this would affect the whole social sector ecosystem. Walls have been built and silos formed. This type of mutation starts a chain reaction which results in the creation of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult, perhaps even impossible to solve. Many of our trickiest social issues can be thought of as wicked problems because of their complex nature, and this means that finding solutions to them often isn’t easy in a world where organisations and even internal departments act in isolation.

So what chance do we have of solving a wicked problem whilst acting alone? The thing with wicked problems is that there is no easy solution. No single answer. No silver bullet. Being careful to avoid the old cliché that ‘design can save the word’, design thinking does perhaps hold the answer. To use a slightly more contemporary cliché, what we need therefore isn’t so much a silver bullet, but silver buckshot – lots of well-designed solutions that are flexible enough and agile enough to work together as part of a wicked problem-solving eco-system.

The key characteristic of design thinking is that a focus is placed on addressing a key challenge or desired outcome rather than solving a specific problem. So a non-design-thinking approach to a tricky social issue like a growing population of older people might be to build more care homes, where as a design-thinking approach would be to look at how we might support people to age well. Approaching issues in this way immediately removes the focus from a single solution from within a single silo and throws open opportunities to look at the issue in a wider context, gaining a real person centred understanding about what it means to get old and how people can be supported to live well in old age. This means that solutions are as likely to be about supporting people to become resilient earlier in life as they are about building care homes to support those people who are ultimately unable to take care of themselves in old age.

Problems like a growing population of older people are wicked and by their nature often require a whole set of solutions to address a multitude of contributing factors, rather than a single one-size-fits-all solution to just one part of the problem. By working in partnership across the whole social sector we can slowly start to break down wicked problems and nurture the evolution of our public sector, coming up with entirely new ways of viewing challenges rather than trying to interpret them within the systems we’ve currently got. Perhaps design won’t save the world, but building networks for social change just maybe, perhaps, might.


One response to “Wicked Problems and the Public Sector

  1. Pingback: How Do We Know Our Organisations Are Really Succeeding? – Paul Taylor·

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