Solving complex problems in the public sector

By Bruno Rizardi

Wednesday February 17, 2021


Complexity is an inherent part of working in the public sector, even though most of the time the word is used to refer to feeling “overwhelmed” or to a lack of clarity and focus.

That is because we are not equipped or prepared to deal with complexity — most of our tools are meant to work with certainty and linearity, even though those two things are a rarity when it comes to public problems.

What is complexity?

I define complexity as the behaviour of a system in which there are multiple interactions between its parts. When we work with complexity, we will encounter a lot of non-linear behaviour — we might change something in a system, and not realise the impact because it is indirect or there is a lag-effect. Another characteristic of complexity is emergence, where the whole is not the sum of its parts — meaning you can’t explain the whole system only looking at its separate pieces.

Through working on national policies for public education, building a procurement system for all of Brazil’s public administration bodies and even creating entrepreneurship programs for low-income citizens, I’ve dealt with complex problems within and outside of government.

In my experience, public problems are, very often, complex problems, or what’s also known as “wicked problems”. These problems are characterised by being unique, ambiguous, having multiple causes, unclear boundaries and being connected to other wicked problems. If you work with any kind of social problem, chances are you are dealing with a wicked problem. Solving them requires a set of specific tools, but first, you’ll need to get into the mindset.

Thinking in systems

Before you get hands-on to tackle a complex problem, you need to have the right mindset. To think in complexity is to think in systems — you need to be aware of how stakeholders interact in the system, be comfortable working with incomplete and ambiguous information, and look for causality and correlations that sometimes can only be observed through qualitative inquiry. Having a designer’s mindset can help you navigate this complexity.

Design seeks to understand people’s desires and needs and transform them into solutions. So, designers develop a set of skills that help them to work through complexity and build something valuable.

Starting from the beginning

Being unsure of the problem is, perhaps surprisingly, a great start.

When you fix your mind too soon on what the problem is, chances are you’ve also decided what you are going to do about it. To escape this trap, be curious: try to explore the problem, question assumptions, look for opinions of experts and understand how the problem affects people.

Complex problems can be assessed by applying the iceberg framework: the visible part of the iceberg, the tip, represents events: observable situations that prompt reactions.

These events are symptoms, but sometimes can be mistaken for the problem itself. For instance, the symptoms of climate change include droughts and big storms and wildfires, which can in turn exacerbate problems, but the cause is man-made emissions. Then, there are trends and patterns, that represent recurring events or increases or decreases on certain situations over time. Sticking to the example of climate change, that could be the constant rise of the sea levels. Below that, there’s the system — the causal structure that supports these events.

This would encompass factories that emit Co2, but also the decisions of politicians, consumers and businesses that create the demand for these factories to operate in the first place. For real impact, we must intervene on this structural level, by designing new relationships or changing existing ones.

The Iceberg Model. (Source: Ecochallenge)

Finally, there are the mental models — these are the beliefs and values that keep the system in place. One such system is the paradigm of economic growth, which some climate change activists see as an impediment to action. Changing these mental models can be very hard and has unexpected outcomes, but sometimes real change can only be achieved by intervening here.

Another example could be teens dropping out of the school, which is the observable event. A pattern that can be observed is that dropouts increase in high school. Then, there’s the system: poor teens must help their parents by getting jobs when they’re old enough, and then have no time for school. Below that, there’s the belief, held by some, that immediate financial gains are more important than getting through high school.

Focus on the problem

Complex problems change over time and as you try to solve them. So, when you fall in love with the solution, you are at risk of losing sight of the problem.

Then, you might be solving a problem that has changed so much that your solution is obsolete. Be mindful of your problem and keep researching it, and tweaking the solution by promoting iterative incrementation to the project. In other words,acknowledge that the way you have framed the problem is only one way to see it, and don’t be afraid to backtrack if you find a better way to frame as you learn more about it.

Working with complexity can feel overwhelming, exhausting or even like wasted energy. But, it is really a matter of knowing how to frame it, so you can solve the most strategic, impactful pieces of the problem. It is also a continuous learning process — always remember that experimenting is a big part of solving complex problems.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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