How to Solve Complex Policy Decisions

When faced with complex public policy and management issues, it’s important to understand that not all problems and problem-solving strategies are the same. In the 1970s, researchers coined the term “wicked” to refer to the kinds of problems faced by public administrators, such as problems with multiple stakeholders, unclear parameters, variable constraints, limited resources, and other complicating factors.

These “wicked” problems don’t respond well to the kind of linear or rational problem solving that you may be familiar with, where you would typically identify the problem, look for causes, find potential solutions, and measure results. Here are some ideas for applying a more flexible, organic approach to complex public policy and management problems.

Get Social

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Multilayered problems with many moving parts benefit from a variety of perspectives and approaches. Resist the temptation to lock yourself in a room to work it out on your own. Instead, bring in people with different problem-solving styles and ways or working. Allow for tangents. In addition to weighing facts and concrete factors, consider the values of those impacted by the problem. This approach may seem chaotic, but it allows for a comprehensive picture of the issue and potential solutions.

Document, Document, Document

To make sense of the chaos that can come from a social approach, get into the habit of documenting everything. Use a shared resource like Evernote to allow all participants to contribute notes on their assumptions, ideas, and potential solutions. Shared, thorough, ongoing documentation encourages communication and cultivates transparency, both of which are essential to tackling complex policy problems.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

As you begin to develop potential solutions, be conscious of how you are evaluating them. Rather than thinking along a good-or-bad binary, view the worst case scenario on one end of a spectrum, and the best case scenario on the other. Set a point at which a solution would be acceptable. When a given solution reaches that threshold, it’s ready to be enacted. This process is called “satisficing” — a combination of satisfy and suffice. There is no perfect solution to a complex problem, because each stakeholder will have a different definition of success, and compromise is always necessary.

Leap Before you Look

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It’s tempting to run every scenario through a full analysis before even considering implementation. But with complex public policy and management issues, such analysis is often unhelpful, because there are so many variables that you’ll soon find yourself in a world of abstraction and hypotheticals. Instead, take a chance and implement early. Use pilot programs and test groups to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of a given solution. Measure success in a real-world setting, rather than guessing about likely outcomes.

If the solutions to public policy issues were easy, public administration would not be as challenging a path as we know it to be. It takes a special kind of dedication and patience to attack a problem in which the causes, facets, and goals are constantly shifting. If you’re interested in tackling such complex problems, you will benefit from looking past linear problem-solving approaches to more flexible, creative strategies.


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