Citizens can solve wicked problems

Public policy-making in Australia suffers from a lack of opportunities for citizens to engage with policy-makers. Governments spend considerable resources on informing the citizenry of their entitlements and obligations in a one-way transfer of information. Policy-makers often, but not universally, consult with citizens in the formulation of policy. What is rare, however, is the opportunity for citizens to deliberate with policy-makers in an interactive process.

Most policy-makers usually approach direct consultation with communities in an apprehensive and defensive way, viewing it as a once-only requirement – usually as merely a preliminary step in the policy formulation process, to be got out of the way before the ‘real’ process of developing policy can start. There is a need for much more interactive forms of citizen engagement in developing and implementing public policy. This refers not only to citizens providing initial input into how the issues are formulated but also to the opportunity to debate and propose different options, to help identify the benefits and risks for each option and to partake in deciding which option is the preferred one.

The participation of citizens in their own governance, it could be argued, is a cornerstone of democracy and hence a moral imperative (see Roberts 2004: 323—4). My preference is to rely on more pragmatic grounds to justify provision by governments of more opportunities to engage with citizens.

Citizens are more likely to be involved in developing policy if policy-makers are more accountable for policy failures. The risk of getting it wrong is likely to be lower if policy-makers put more upfront effort into tapping a range of views. Whether the effort to engage with citizens directly is worth the time and resources needs to be judged against the size of the risk of policy failure in the particular case under consideration.

Are Australian citizens engaged?

Why is there a need for government to engage more directly with citizens? A key reason is the low level of citizen involvement in Australian political and social institutions. Only 1.5 per cent of the electorate in the 1990s belonged to political parties, down from 3.7 per cent during the 1970s (Tiffen and Gittins 2004: 38). This low level of political party membership places Australia behind most other comparable countries. Australia comes in second last on a ranking of 16 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries for the number of members of political parties as a proportion of the electorate.

A reason for a lack of involvement in politics could be the widespread lack of confidence most citizens have in Australian political institutions. Only three in ten adult Australians in the mid-1990s expressed a degree of satisfaction with parliament. This is below the average of four out of ten adults for 17 OECD countries (Tiffen and Gittins 2004: 244). Only four out of ten Australians expressed satisfaction with the public service, which was also below the average satisfaction rating for 17 OECD countries.

The lack of civic participation in Australia may not matter if government was merely about applying technical solutions to problems but we know this is not the case. The lack of a wide sense of political legitimacy may be restricting the scope of policy options being considered by government. The result is that only incremental policy answers are proposed when more deep-seated solutions are needed. The lack of political legitimacy may cause policy-makers to bypass big issues because the mechanisms for achieving large-scale community change in attitudes and behaviour are absent.

Citizen engagement and wicked problems

Governments or public servants in Australia, for the most part, do not seek active forms of direct citizen participation in policy-making. Policy-makers prefer to deal with stakeholders in the form of non-government organisations. These networks are well established and in many cases entail low transaction costs for policy-makers by seeking responses from established bodies that nominally represent particular groups of citizens. However, the extra effort on the part of policy-makers to engage more directly with citizens is likely to be accepted if the problem is widely perceived to be intractable.

The term ‘wicked’ has been applied when a political or social problem cannot be easily resolved. Wicked problems, according to Rittel and Webber who first coined the term in relation to public policy, are the result of a complex set of interlocking issues and are shaped by constraints which change over time (Rittel and Webber, 1973). In the first place, the term ‘wicked’ applies when the nature of the problem is hard to define and its causes can be explained in numerous ways. Every wicked problem is essentially unique, with no precedents for solutions that can be applied. A second key characteristic is the diverse range of interests involved, which are often based in communities located in different geographical places. The presence of many vested interests with various and changing ideas about how to define the problem, what might be causing it, and how to resolve it adds enormous complexity to any efforts to find a solution. The various stakeholders in relation to wicked problems usually have opposing views about what are acceptable solutions. This makes it particularly difficult to discern the potential solutions emerging from community consultations and debate, and which solutions should be pursued. Getting all stakeholders to agree to an acceptable resolution is especially hard in the absence of a consensus about common values. The third characteristic of a wicked problem policy issue is that it often requires comprehension of complex technical detail to understand the nature and extent of the problem. Expert opinions in relation to complex issues are likely to vary and indeed are likely to offer opposing perspectives. So the task of discerning what is the most appropriate interpretation of the facts comes back to the values of those involved (Rittel and Webber 1973: 155—69).

In Australia’s case, these three characteristics of a wicked problem apply in a number of areas of public policy. One such problem that has not been resolved, despite a major inquiry into welfare reform, is the lack of a social security income-support system tailored to the needs of individuals, which is able to promote labour force participation and not welfare dependency (see Curtain 2005). Another intractable problem is the perennial occurrence of skills shortages due to the lack of effective mechanisms for matching supply with demand. Education and health service delivery failures and the lack of accountability for these failures to Aboriginal communities because of bureaucratic silos have also been persistent problems. The failure to produce appropriate water management policies in Australia due to state jurisdictional differences and lack of community engagement is also a prime example of a wicked problem (see OECD 2004: 47—8). The history of attempts to develop appropriate policies for the Murray—Darling Basin and the limited impact of the recent Living Murray Initiative, discussed below, illustrate well the nature of a classic wicked problem.

Citizens and policy-making in Australia

In Australia, as in other OECD countries, relations between citizens and governments as policy-makers are mostly limited to overly formal exchanges. Governments regularly make available or actively deliver information to citizens, who at best receive it as a one-sided exchange. Less frequently, governments invite citizens to offer their views as part of a consultation exercise. In relation to national issues, this is usually done through a formal inquiry in which government sets the agenda, provides the background information and invites citizens to make formal submissions to respond to the terms of reference.

Governments’ preferred forms of consultation rely on well-established channels of communications with groups who represent various constituencies. After the 2004 election result, the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold, signalled a greater use of this form of consultation in the light of the government’s forthcoming outright majority in the Senate. Dr Shergold told the Australian Financial Review that:

‘business, community organisations and the public service need to work together to ensure they can have a significant impact on the development of long-term strategic policy. I believe the public service should be open for business. I think the public service, entirely appropriately, meets with lobbyists, advocates, community organisations, to get their feel on things.’ (Burgess 2004)

This perception of policy development as negotiation among organized interests has a number of limitations, in terms of who is consulted and in what manner.

Citizen engagement in practice

Australian citizens have little say over the type and extent of the background information provided when policy options are being canvassed, or whether and how consultation is conducted. Nor do they typically receive feedback on the reasons for adopting one course of action rather than the other possible options. This assessment is confirmed by the 2004 performance audit of eight policy development exercises by the auditor-general in Victoria. The report examined the processes followed to develop policy advice in three government departments and concluded:

Consultation during policy development was variable. Staff on the projects examined were generally skilled and experienced at liaising with government and other internal stakeholders, however, processes for engaging with external stakeholders need to be made more systematic and rigorous. All projects were committed to stakeholder consultation, but some would benefit from better front-end planning to ensure that relevant stakeholders are systematically identified, and appropriate ways of consulting are identified. (Auditor-General Victoria 2004: 85)

The lack of a systematic process for identifying and involving stakeholders was one deficiency highlighted. The review noted that in one case key parties were invited to suggest representatives for a community reference group. One stakeholder group identified through this process was excluded from the community reference group. No reason for the exclusion was given, creating tension with the body excluded and placing the credibility of the consultation process at risk with all stakeholders.

The Victorian report noted that this failure to engage with all relevant stakeholders stemmed from the lack of clear procedures for selecting who was to be consulted: ‘Teams examined did not always document their plan for stakeholder engagement’ (Auditor-General Victoria 2004: 96). The performance review noted that without such systematic planning, there is a risk that projects will only consult with familiar and easily accessible interest groups, and that ‘difficult’ stakeholders will be avoided (Auditor-General Victoria 2004: 97).

The Murray-Darling Basin and citizen involvement

Dealing with the multiple and conflicting pressures about how to best manage the waters of the Murray—Darling Basin is a classical wicked problem, which can only be managed, not solved. And managing it requires the cooperation of the users. This is not impossible to achieve. A stakeholder survey conducted in 2001 found that 95 per cent of respondents supported an environmental allocation of water for the river if the decision-making process included an opportunity for all water users and interested people to have a say on how much water and how it would be provided, and if local people were involved in making decisions (Nancarrow and Syme 2001). The challenge for policy-makers is to work out ways in which the community can be engaged with a problem that is so broad and complex. The main criterion for success for a citizen-engagement strategy has to be that ‘the need and options for change must be understood “at the kitchen table”’ (Boully 2004: 19). This refers to the need for citizen-engagement strategies to work at a highly decentralized level so that local communities see they are part of a process and one that is universally regarded as fair and reasonable, so they can accept responsibility for their part of the solution.

Murray Darling public meetings
(‘Image by Arthur Mostead, sourced from the MDBC’)

The standard practice of policy-makers of offering a once-only opportunity to consult, often in a perfunctory way, is insufficient to involve citizens at a level where they can be part of the process to develop ways to at least manage wicked problems. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of the failure of state jurisdictions in the Murray—Darling Basin to put in place a coordinated and comprehensive engagement process [see the full version of this chapter for a detailed analysis — Ed.]. Working directly with citizens in their communities can be resource intensive and challenging to policymakers in terms of their capacities to negotiate agreed outcomes. On the other hand, reliance on input from advocacy groups, whether representative of their constituency or not, tends to lock policy development into an incremental process, where the outcomes are most likely to offer short-term answers only.

Murray Darling public meetings
(‘Image by Arthur Mostead, sourced from the MDBC’)

Good policy outcomes depend upon how well the political jurisdictions can work together. Policy-makers need stronger incentives to work with a broader constituency in the community to ensure that petty jurisdictional rivalries are overcome. The test of whether the effort is worth it is ultimately a risk assessment one: what are the likely consequences for the economy and society if the policy-maker fails to engage the wider community and the adopted policy option fails? Market failure is a common justification for government intervention in the economy. The prospect of government policy failure and its consequent costs is also an issue policy-makers have to address. The need to lessen the chances of policy failure justifies the additional cost to governments and public servants of engaging citizens in a more deliberative and iterative policy development process.

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This is an edited extract from ‘Engaging citizens to solve major public policy challenges’, chapter 6 in Beyond the Policy Cycle: the policy process in Australia, Allen & Unwin, July 2006, RRP $39.95

References :

  • Auditor-General , Victoria 2004, Report on Public Sector Agencies: Results of special reviews and other studies, Auditor-General, Melbourne
  • Boully, L. 2004, ‘Participatory Governance: Intra and inter governmental consultation and community engagement in the Murray Darling Basin Initiative’, paper delivered at the 7th Annual Corporate Governance in the Public Sector Conference, Canberra, 20-22 April
  • Burgess, V. 2004, ‘New senate to get broader advice’, Australian Financial Review, 5 November
  • Nancarrow, B. and Syme, G. 2001, River Murray Environmental Flows and Water Quality Project: Stakeholder Profiling Study: A report to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, CSIRO Land and Water Consultancy Report, Murray Darling Basin Commission Canberra
  • OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) 2004, OECD economic surveys 2004, Australia, OECD, Paris
  • Rittel, H. and Webber, M. 1973, ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’, Policy Sciences, vol. 4, pp. 155-69
  • Roberts, N. 2004, ‘Public deliberation in an age of direct citizen participation’, American Review of Public Administration, vol 34, no 4, pp. 315-53
  • Tiffen, R. and Gittens, R. 2004, How Australia Compares, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
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