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The new practice of public problem solving

By Maria Katsonis

Monday April 1, 2019

Does a policy solution work for the people it is intended to help? This is the fundamental question that problem solvers and policy makers must ask themselves. Innovators in and out of government are using a combination of tools to change the way problems are identified and solved.

At a glance

Tara Dawson (Georgetown University) and Anne-Marie Slaughter (former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) explore new approaches to public problem solving.  They identify four common elements to these approaches: people-centred, experimental, data-enabled and designed to scale.

What’s wrong with the status quo?

For most of the 20th century, “public problem solving” was synonymous with policy making – the work of figuring out what government should do and how to get it done.

This approach assumes a linear sequence where policy analysts survey the landscape of theory and practice, analyse the data and formulate a prescribed course of action. If the recommended action is adopted, it must then be implemented, either by the public sector or contracted out. Often there is a limited feedback loop to check that the initiative serves the intended recipients.

“The elegantly conceived idea meets a more complex, messy reality, and much too late, after much too much investment, the flaws of the plan are revealed.”, Hilary Cottam social entrepreneur

New approaches

Innovators in and out of government are using a combination of tools to change the way problems are identified and solved. Their different efforts approaches signals a new practice that can be distilled into four common elements:

  1. People-centred: puts people with needs and capabilities at the centre of programs and policies (also known as human-centred design)
  2. Experimental: starts small and scouts for local solutions, tests ideas and concepts and experiments before national rollouts
  3. Data-enabled: leverages data (big and small) to assess problems, monitor progress, and evaluate what works
  4. Designed to scale: assesses and plans for how to expand impact and scale

People-centred focus

Begin with the people who are in need and engage with them in a way that asks for direct feedback about their needs. This often sheds new light on the factors contributing to social problems.

A relentless focus on what users need and how they experience services brings people into the process of providing feedback for services where they have not traditionally had a voice.  Starting with people counters the tendency to see people as the problem. People can be helped, invested in, connected to others, taught, empowered, and cared for. They cannot be “fixed” or “solved.”

Scout and experiment

This involves looking for solutions rather than creating them, especially at the local level. Scouting also connects directly to engaging people more than problems, as local problem solvers often work with people in need in their communities.

The technology practice of scouting for ideas, creating a minimum viable product and then iterating to improve can apply to some areas of public problem solving. The public and non-profit sectors frequently develop and implement solutions through a single big bang that leaves little room for testing the effort with people and limited chances for course correction.


A hallmark of today’s public problem solvers is their ability to use data (big and small) to measure problems, to learn what works/what doesn’t and to make improvements as soon as they are necessary.

The opportunity for data use in public problem solving is expansive and ranges in intensity and sophistication. It can take the form of analytics, performance dashboards or low-cost evaluation methods. It is not the data that adds value but the ability to tighten the feedback loop between people receiving services and those steering them.

Designed to scale

Moving from small and local to big and state-based or even national, can be fraught with difficulty. Small size offers speed, variety, and adaptability. The core challenge for public problem solvers is to ensure, through deliberate and strategic design, that small ultimately translates to big.

Pilot projects must become policies; solutions providers must connect with government and/or with one another in structured and managed networks, alliances, or partnerships.

The bottom line

The process of engaging, scouting, experimenting, measuring and scaling stands the traditional policy process on its head. However not all public problems are equally suited to this approach.

The new practice transforms hierarchical decision making into more horizontal processes of consultation and iteration with the people whom government is trying to serve. While still recognising the value of expertise, it engages citizens more deeply throughout the process.

Want to read more?

The New Practice of Public Problem Solving – Tara McGuinness and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2019

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