Solving a “Wicked Problem”

Wicked by Nature

What is a wicked problem? Well, according to Wikipedia (I know, not authoritative but humor me) it goes like this: (

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that can not be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem. The use of the term “wicked” here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. [1] Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. [2] Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Hmm.. too wordy? Let’s try another.

Another online source defines it as:

A wicked problem, according to Rittel, is a social or cultural issue or concern that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve. These are the crises that we long for answers to, but answers do not come easily. These include issues like income disparity, poverty, hunger, health care, obesity, terrorism, education design, sustainability, financial crises, and more.

Unlike simpler problems that may boast a quick fix and an easy answer, these problems may be complicated, interconnected, and just deemed ”too large” to fix. Yet they plague our governments, communities, and society as a whole.

Now I can see you shaking your head and saying, “Too big to solve? Yeah right.” So sit back in your office chair and ask yourself, “What wicked problems do we have?”

Okay, you can stop screaming now.

Too Big to Fix

In 2016, the province of Nova Scotia’s GoverNEXT organization hosted Policy Hackinspired by and modeled on a similar public service case competition held by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015.

Participants gained deep experience in issue analysis and problem-solving, and it also was an excellent networking opportunity. Teams were provided senior level coaches and advisors to assist the process.

In response to the request for potential cases, dozens of cases were submitted of which 10 were selected.

All case studies have one common theme. They are impossible to fix.

Correction – they were considered to be impossible to fix by whatever agency was responsible for them. After looking over attempted and considered patches, it was time to look to something new.

Teams conducted research in order to see what possible solutions may exist, if any. For example, the case study of Canadian Pension Plan and Old Age Security form enhancement led to various recommendations that involved multiple government agencies and process revisions. Our research led us to Singapore, whose system for retiree pensions is considered a gold standard globally.

Everything is electronic, citizens automatically receive pensions at 55 and there is almost no paperwork or forms.

Hang on one minute! How did they do that again?


Okay, that’s all we had to do. Link all those departments files together and presto! Simple fix.

Well actually, simple fix, but it wasn’t not easy to do. We’re talking silos of files that cannot talk to each other, agencies or departments that won’t collaborate, let alone cooperate, along with legacy systems and actual paper files.

Like I said earlier – simple fix but not an easy one. Dozens of staff, tons of resources and promises by governments to make things work saw wicked problems make their home and plan to stay for a while.

Silver Linings

We made our recommendations to the senior officials for the Atlantic Region. They asked for solutions. We provided them. Now, they had to put the recommendations into motion.

I sure hope they listened and I don’t have to fill out those forms when I turn 65. Because if the 20-something-year-old millennials couldn’t figure them out, when I’m half blind and with memory issues, I might just have the solution!

Ken Lee is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is currently a GIS Officer with the GeoNOVA Secretariat of the Province of Nova Scotia with interests in innovation, leadership, policy, diversity, employee engagement, ITIL and Lean 6 Sigma for government. His next step? Let’s find out! You can read his posts here.

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