The Wicked Problem of Gov 2.0

What exactly is the nature of the Gov 2.0 challenge? This question was inspired by Andrew Krzmarzick’s post (“What Gov 2.0 Needs Now: Managers, Money and Models”) and Christina Morrison’s post (“What is Gov 2.0? A survey of Government IT pros”) on the recent GovLoop survey about Gov 2.0. As Andrew and Christina argued, the survey demonstrates many differing perspectives on Gov 2.0 in terms of what it actually means and how to implement Gov 2.0. To me, this suggests that Gov 2.0 is the classic wicked problem.

Wicked problems were originally an IT concept but it has spread to other fields as we confront more complex challenges. Definitions of wicked problems vary but the Rittel and Weber’s definition is the most cited:
“ 1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is a problem).
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).”

Gov 2.0 seems to fit nine of the ten criteria (I have my doubts about point five) but I think the better definition is Conklin’s incorporation of social complexity into wicked problems because of the great number of stakeholders , the multitude of solutions, and the multiple perspectives of Gov 2.0. I believe Mark Drapeau’s diagram of Gov 2.0 best captures this complexity.

So, why should it matter if we determine that Gov 2.0 is a wicked problem? Well, once we know the kind of challenge we face, we can determine the best strategies to confront it. If Gov 2.0 were a tame problem then we know that our standard toolkit of problem solving methods and data analysis are adequate for creating solutions. The tame problem does not change as we attempt to analyze it and we can model the interactions as simple cause and effect relationships. The definition of a tame problem can be easily agreed to as also the solution.

But if we establish that Gov 2.0 is a wicked problem, then we know that even defining the problem will be difficult much less knowing what the solution will be. In fact, with most wicked problems, you don’t solve the problem as much as manage it (climate change is a good example of this). Much of the work is in building consensus among the stakeholders on the wicked problem and developing innovative methods to manage the problem. There is also a substantial amount of work in identifying and containing undesirable effects stemming from the management of the wicked problem.

In dealing with a wicked problem, we need collaboration across government organizations while helping to build up skills for innovation among the employees. Beinecke (2009) argues for a new type of leadership that is transformational rather than transactional. We also have to develop a new perspective on risk management as Krigsman (2010) argues in his article. The Australian Government has produced a great manual on how to deal with wicked problems in government management that is excellent guidance for current Gov 2.0 activities.

Establishing Gov 2.0 as a wicked problem may seem discouraging but the good news is that there is many tools to help us understand and manage wicked problems that emphasizes the benefits of our solutions while minimizing the undesired effects. It also confirms the need for more openness, collaboration, and innovation in government.

Australian Government. (2007). Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective. http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications07/wickedproblems.pdf

Beinecke, R.H. (2009). Introduction: Leadership for Wicked Problems. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, 14:1. http://www.innovation.cc/scholarly-style/beinecke1.pdf

Conklin, J. (2008). Wicked Problems & Social Complexity. http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf

Drapeau, M. (May 24, 2010). What does Government 2.0 look like? http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/05/what-does-government-20-look-l.html

Krigsman, M. (May 7, 2010). ‘Wicked problems’: collaboration, risk, and failure. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/projectfailures/wicked-problems-collaboration-risk-and-failure/9465

Science Daily. (December 5, 2007). Complex ‘Wicked’ Problems Better Solved Individually Than Through Internet Groups. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071130172937.htm

Wicked Problem. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

Wicked Problems, May 2002. http://www.poppendieck.com/wicked.htm

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Andrew Krzmarzick

I think you can confidently add #5, Bill. In many instances, government personnel may have one shot at “getting it right” after making the case for a pilot project…if that doesn’t go well or seems like a waste of time, my hunch is that it could be a long while before there’s approval for another attempt.

Marie-Michelle Strah, PhD

Check out Paul Culmsee’s preso on Government 2.0 and “wicked problems” in information architecture. Does a comparative study of Gov2.0 in US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Presents a successful case study of using dialogue mapping to address wicked problems at the local level (City of Stirling). Riffs off your blog and comments here too (see slide 15)! Enjoy: http://womeninspdc.org/pages/media-library