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Leadership Skills for Managing Wicked Problems in Local Government

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In the early 21st century, a persistent challenge facing many local government managers is how they can lead their organizations and communities to address their most pressing social, economic, and public service issues. Both governing institutions and those they govern are too frequently unable to come together in effective public deliberation and problem-solving.

I believe this is so for three reasons. First, during the 20th century, traditional political, education, and community institutions became heavily service-oriented, with organizational cultures and work approaches increasingly hierarchical, narrow in scope, and expert-defined. Local governance and public problem-solving became disconnected from local sources of connecting community knowledge and the work experiences of everyday people. This in turn limited and fragmented the public problem-solving roles for professional managers, elected officials, and citizens, and diminished the capacities of local governance institutions to create the political will needed for sustained public action.

Second, for many local leaders, effective public problem-solving became even more elusive as disruptions to public services reached crisis proportions following the 2008 housing bubble collapse and global financial market meltdown. In the U.S. the 2008 market collapse came on the heels of over a decade of growing fiscal revenue shortages and fiscal instability for local and state governments. Writing in the August 2012 issue of State and Local Government Review, researchers Lawrence Martin, Richard Levey, and Jenna Cawley concluded in “The ‘New Normal’ for Local Government” that the bursting of the housing bubble, the banking and financial market crisis, and resulting 2008 recession permanently altered the local government landscape, resulting in a “new normal” for local government finances, employment, and services. They argued that the foreseeable future for local government will consist of significantly fewer resources, smaller workforces, and an emphasis on new ways of delivering services. Local government leaders will face hard decisions about sorting the values and priorities on which services to keep, how to pay for them, and how they should be delivered.

Finally, in working to rebuild a sustainable balance of public services, citizen expectations, and fiscal resources, local leaders find themselves operating more and more in the realm of wicked problems. In 1973 Horst Rittel and Mel Webber, professors of design and urban planning respectively at UCLA, wrote an article on “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in which they observed that many real-life, messy situations are complex social and organizational problems interwoven with interdependent sub-issues, and are highly resistant to successful resolution through traditional linear and orderly problem solving approaches. Labeling such challenges as “wicked problems’, Rittel and Webber compiled a list of ten identifying characteristics still referenced today.

I often use a briefer working definition: Wicked problems are complex and interdependent issues, with no clear and agreed upon problem definition, no single criteria for right or wrong; and which involve the conflicting perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Wicked problems are not ‘solved,’ only made better or worse. Wicked problems can be contrasted with tame problems, which have clarity on goals and problem definition, sufficient and adequate data, a clear solution and ending point, and for which one correct solution can be derived. How to fix a broken water line is a tame problem requiring only the application of the appropriate expertise to resolve. How to define the problem of poverty, much less ‘fix’ it in our local communities is something else again.

Martín Carcasson, founder and director of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University has observed that the dominant public solving approaches we use in local government rely on either professional and technical expertise or advocacy/interest group politics. Both approaches are ineffective at best in addressing wicked problems, and often make the situation worse. Managers are more likely to be successful with strategies founded on public participation, collaboration, and deliberative engagement. Aligning purpose with process, bridging local engagement gaps, and diligent pre-planning are keys to implementing broad community participation and engagement. Completing the Civic Engagement Organizational Self-Assessment, available for free download from ICMA is a good way to begin a local public engagement planning process.

To these macro community strategies, I would add a micro strategy of relational problem-solving, which emphasizes reflective and pragmatic language about doing public work and uses core reframing concepts and core skills to help leaders and work groups move from talk to action. I became more deeply involved in relational problem solving as part of the Clear Vision Eau Claire civic engagement initiative that I and then County Administrator Tom McCarty convened in 2007 to address serious community infrastructure needs, as well as a growing trend of fragmented and divisive public participation. Working with the National Civic League, and later with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship (CDC) at Augsburg College, Clear Vision developed a train-the-trainer public engagement process centered on convening and training community members in relational public problem solving. Drawing from on the Public Achievement model developed by the CDC in the 1990’s, Clear Vision has trained over 300 Eau Claire residents in engagement and problem solving. These residents have in turn led multiple community initiatives to take action on performing arts facilities, community gardens, jobs for the underemployed, community parks, homeless shelters, bicycle routes, environmental education, and elementary school partnerships.

Relational public problem-solving draws on reframing conceptual language to empower participants to envision roles as important co-creators of public work and decision making. Key concepts include:

  • Public life:  The roles that people take at work, at schools, and in the community (apart from private and family relationships) where they act on diverse self-interests to solve common problems. The success of public problem solving, and local democracy, depends on how everyday people live their public lives.
  • Politics: From the Greek politikos, meaning “the work of citizens.” This includes the customs, habits, power structures, and the formal and informal rules we use to make decisions where we live and work.
  • Power: From the Latin potêre meaning “to be able” is the capacity to act in and influence our world. Power exists in a give-and-take, multi-dimensional relationship. Power is derived from many sources: relationships, knowledge, experience, organization, perseverance, moral persuasion, and resources.
  • Self-interest: From the Latin inter and esse “self among others.” The product of our personal history, motivation, experience, understanding, and reflection about who we are and what we care about most in the context of our relationships with others. Self interests are why people take action and stay engaged in public life.

Relational problem-solving also relies on a short of list of core of individual and group skills to help participants build the relational trust and community connections essential for any sustained public action. These core skills include:

  • Values house meeting: A 1 ½-2 hour structured small group discussion through which diverse stakeholders identify deeply held values, concerns, and strategies for public action through round robin responses to three questions:
    1. What values and traditions are important to you?
    2. What forces threaten these values?
    3. What can we do in our community to address these threats and strengthen our civic life?
  • Power Mapping: A simple graphic technique for work groups to organize knowledge and power relationships about potential stakeholders and to illustrate the political and cultural resources that affect and are affected by an issue. Maps are also used to create one to one meeting assignments.
  • One-to-One relational meeting: A 30-minute face-to-face meeting scheduled for the purpose of discovering another person’s self-interest and potential for building a public relationship around shared interests in a problem or issue. One-to-ones focus on open-ended “why” and “what” questions to explore another person’s interests, passions, stories, and public issues that energize the interviewee. Archimedes is quoted as saying “Give me a place to stand and with a lever, I will move the whole world.” I can’t speak to the whole world, but the one-to-one is the lever with which you can move your community.
  • Public evaluation: A 5-10 minute debrief at the end of work group meetings to allow participants to evaluate their collective work, assess progress, clarify misunderstandings, and reflect on the impact of their work on the broader community. Possible questions might include: “What worked well?” or “What could we do better next time?” or “What one word describes how you feel about our work today?”

Learning and applying these concepts and skills requires minimal time and resources and can be accomplished in as little as 4-6 hours in a workshop training format. Alternatively, I have found that a very effective learning approach is to incorporate relational problem solving training and practice into the meetings of individual work groups as they come together to address specific community problems. A more detailed discussion of these and other core problem solving skills can be found in Harry Boyte’s The Citizen Solution.

We live in a VUCA world-volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous-where government is neither the epicenter of the community nor the locus for all public problem solving. And as managers, we work in an environment marked by anti-government rhetoric, widely dispersed community expertise, highly organized advocacy groups, widespread incivility, declining social cohesion, and shrinking public trust. Increasingly, our community leadership challenge is to close the widening gap between what the community can do, and what the community has the political will to do. This gap is where we most often encounter the wicked problems that plague our communities and keep us awake at night. Learning and using relational problem solving skills is one way we can tackle these problems more successfully and close the gap.

Mike Huggins, ICMA-CM is a former Eau Claire WI city manager with more than 30 years of leadership experience in city management and urban planning.  As a Civic Engagement Service Provider for the ICMA Center for Management Strategies, he works with local governments and communities to build the civic problem solving skills of everyday people to collaborate and do extraordinary and meaningful public work. He is a Senior Lecturer on community leadership and public engagement in the Honors Program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and holds MA degrees in public administration and urban planning from the University of Kansas. He is a board member of Clear Vision Eau Claire, a 2015 Finalist for the Harvard University Ash Center Innovations in Public Engagement in Government Award. He also serves on the board of the Chippewa Valley Post, Inc., a hyperlocal news initiative, and is vice-chair of the E-Democracy.org Board of Directors.    

For more on building civic leadership and community, register for a free webinar from the ICMA Coaching ProgramBuilding Civic Leadership and Community 10:00 - 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time, Wednesday, April 13.


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PM Magazine Article: Tackling Wicked Problems Takes Resident Engagement