30: Sledgehammers for wicked problems

There are many definitions of ‘wicked problems’ – first characterised by Rittel and Webber in the 1970s – try googling to explore. However, essentially, they are problems that are well known, difficult and that governments of all colours have attempted to solve. My own list, relating to cities in the UK, would be something like:

  • social
    • social disparities
    • welfare – unemployment, pensions,……
    • housing
  • services
    • health services – elements of post-code lottery, poor performance, resources
    • education – a long tail of poor performance – for individuals and schools
    • prisons – high levels of recidivism
  • economics
    • productivity outside the Greater South East
    • ‘poor’ towns – seaside towns for example
  • global, with local impacts – sustainability
    • responding to the globalisation of the economy
    • responding to climate change
    • food security
    • energy security
    • indeed security in general

There are lots of ways of doing this and much more detail could be added. See for example the book edited by Charles Clarke titled The too difficult box.

Even at this broad level of presentation, the issues all connect and this is one of the arguments, continually put, for joined-up government. It is almost certainly the case, for example, that the social list has to be tackled through the education system. Stating this, however, is insufficient. Children from deprived families arrive at school relatively ill-prepared – in terms of vocabulary for example and so start – it has been estimated – two years ‘behind’ and in a conventional system, there is a good chance that they never catch up. There are extremes of this. Children who have been in care for example rarely progress to higher education; and it then turns out that quite a high percentage of the prison population have at some stage in their lives been in care. Something fundamental is wrong there.

We can conjecture that there is another chain of causal links associated with housing issues. Consider not the overall numbers issue – that as a country we build 100,000 houses a year when the ‘need’ is estimated at 200,000 or more – but the fact that there are areas of very poor housing, usually associated with deprived families. I would argue that this is not a housing problem but an income problem – not enough resource for the families to maintain the housing. It is an income problem because it is an employment problem. It is an employment problem because it is a skills problem. It is a skills problem because it is an education problem. Hence the root, as implied earlier, lies in education. So a first step in seeking to tackle the issues on the list of to identify the causal chain and to begin with the roots.

What, then, is the ‘sledgehammer’ argument? If the problem can be articulated and analysed, then it should be possible to see ‘what can be done about it’. The investigation of feasibility then kicks in of course: solutions are usually expensive. However, we don’t usually manage to do the cost-benefit analysis at a broad scale. If we could be more effective in providing education for children in care, and for the rehabilitation of prisoners, expensive schemes could be paid for by savings in the welfare and prison budgets: invest to save.

Let’s start with education. There are some successful schools in potentially deprived areas – so examples are available. (This may not pick up the child care issues but we return to that later.) There are many studies that say that the critical factor in education is the quality of the teachers – so enhancing the status of the teaching profession and building on schemes such as Teach First will be very important. Much is being done, not quite enough. Above all, there must be a way of not accepting ‘failure’ in any individual cases. With contemporary technology, tracking is surely feasible, though the follow-up might involve lots of 1-1 work and that is expensive. Finally, there is a legacy issue: those from earlier cohorts who have been failed by the system will be part of the current welfare and unemployment challenge, and so again some kind of tracking, some joining up of social services, employment services and education, should provide strong incentives to engage in life-long learning programmes – serious catch up. The tracking and joining up part of this programme should also deal with children in care as a special case, and a component of the legacy programme should come to grips with the prison education and rehabilitation agenda. There is then an important add-on: it may be necessary for the state to provide employment in some cases. Consider people released from prison as one case. They are potentially unattractive to employers (though some are creative in this respect) and so employment through let’s say a Remploy type of scheme – maybe as a licence condition of (early?) release becomes a partial solution. This might help to take the UK back down the league table of prison population per capita. This could all in principle be done and paid for out of savings – though there may be an element of no pain ‘no gain’ at the start. There are examples where it is being done: let’s see how they could be scaled up.

Similar analyses could be brought to bear on other issues. Housing is at the moment driven by builders’ and developers’ business models; and as with teacher supply, there is a capacity issue. As we have noted, in part it needs to be driven by education, employment and welfare reforms as a contribution to affordability challenges. And it needs to be driven by planners who can switch from a development control agenda to a place-making one.

The rest of the list, for now, is, very unfairly, left as an exercise for the reader!! In all cases, radical thinking is required, but realistic solutions are available!! We can offer a Michael Barber check list for tackling problems – from his book How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy – very delivery-focused, as is his wont. For a problem:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • How do you know you will be on track?
  • if not on track, what will you do?

All good advice!

Alan Wilson

One thought on “30: Sledgehammers for wicked problems

  1. ….but isn’t this suffused with assumptions about the rationality, sincerity, attentiveness and single-mindedness of those ‘doing’ public policy. It’s not evident that ‘engineering’ models apply to the public business, except occasionally and in limited sectors.
    Take a couple of your examples. The Ministry for Justice (secretary of state for justice – assuming for the moment no difference between the two) needs to cut spending; it wants to reduce reoffending; it must please or at least not alienate the Daily Mail; it must implement the radical privatisation of probation enacted by the previous justice secretary; it must not impose extra ‘red tape’ on business’…. These aims may be incommensurable.
    In housing ‘rational’ policy solutions contend with ideological commitments in favour of the private sector and against (eg) local government; in addition, lobbyists secure privileged access to policy makers for private developers.
    The upshot (unoriginal) is that linear modelling doesn’t get you very far. Policy analysis may be ‘site specific’ and permit little read across from one time period to another or indeed from one sector to another.


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