Published on May 27, 2015

Public dialogue can help us solve our so-called “wicked problems”

Data sharing open policy process Open government Sciencewise

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

pathIncreasingly, governments across the world are having to deal with so-called “wicked problems” – problems which cut across a swathe of traditional departments and affect vast numbers of people, all with differing opinions on the problem and the solution. Classic wicked problems include climate change, immigration and terrorism.

This article in Civil Service World examines international approaches to solving such wicked problems. The matrix approach, first suggested in a Harvard paper by the American secretary of defence Ashton Carter, is being piloted in Singapore. The approach involves government departments and agencies being given specific responsibilities and targets, coordinated by a secretariat which oversees the work and monitors progress. This is as opposed to governments simply creating or merging departments, which can be disruptive and ineffective.

The matrix approach makes a lot of sense in the UK context. It has become a cliche to call for the end of Whitehall silos, and this approach offers a workable way to make that happen on specific, knotty policy issues which it is difficult for departments to work jointly on.

But whilst the the matrix approach goes some way to tackling problems which transcend departments, the other reason these problems are so “wicked” is that they affect a lot of people, all with differing opinions on the problem and the solution. That’s where new approaches to policy making such as open policy making and deliberative public dialogue can help.

These approaches are useful for issues which are not clear cut: issues which might involve making difficult trade-offs, ethical judgments, and decisions that affect the shape of our future society. It can also help policymakers see problems from different perspectives and identify innovative solutions,  prioritise challenges and assign resources accordingly, and can help to develop a sense of ownership and contribution towards the policy solution. When there is no easy answers, deliberative public dialogue can help policymakers navigate the path to a policy.

Involve has a track record of helping policymakers tackle complex and controversial issues using dialogue. We’re a partner in Sciencewise, a BIS funded programme with a remit to help government get public input on policy related to emerging technologies such as big data, synthetic biology and robotics & autonomous systems – all of which throw up some thorny issues with no obvious, widely accepted solutions. Sciencewise recently supported the delivery of a public dialogue on mitochondria replacement, a topic which threw up ethical, philosophical and even theological questions for many. This was a public dialogue success story: after a well-run independent process, decision makers benefited from a credible body of evidence on public views and the confidence that legislation would be generally supported by the public.

Involve has also supported the Cabinet Office to coordinate an open policy making process on data sharing, an issue throwing up questions about trust, privacy, and even the role of government. The process brought together civil society and departments to explore the benefits, risks, limitations and governance for sharing personal data within government. The process has helped policymakers understand the issues, as well as work through with civil society how to maximise the benefits and minimise the downsides to citizens of personal data sharing.

It will always be a challenge for government to tackle complex policy problems which do not clearly sit under one department. But by opening up our “wicked problems” to wider input, government can at least ensure that they are taking the public’s considered view into account when devising policy solutions.

Photo credit: Saikat Biswas 

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