Mindset shift in public service needed to address ‘wicked problems’, study finds

By Jackson Graham

March 9, 2022

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

A more agile and collaborative public service that is willing to accept and learn from policy failure could help solve the most complex problems facing Australia, new research says. 

Australian National University researchers professor Jochen Prantl and professor Evelyn Goh have overseen a research project since 2015 that has also involved training senior public servants – particularly in the Defence and Foreign Affairs departments – on approaching problems in new ways. 

The research examines three “wicked problems” Australia has faced in that time, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan, and Sino-American competition. 

A wicked problem is one that requires an understanding of the complex context it exists in, is highly interconnected with other problems, and cannot be addressed with ready-made solutions. 

Prantl told The Mandarin that for the public service to solve these problems it required a “paradigm change”.

“Public servants need to be trained in a way that they understand, analyse and diagnose problems in their systemic context,” he says. 

“If you want to address wicked problems in an effective way; there’s no silver bullet. It requires by nature a constant reassessment and recalibration of policy measures.” 

Prantl points out that Afghanistan’s involvement in narcotics is difficult to eradicate if governments are also seeking local support for information on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. 

“The problem is that the way the international community has approached the problem, it has approached it far too much through a military lens in anticipation that there is a war to win while this is impossible,” he said. 

Similarly, with COVID-19, Prantl points out national policies are undermined if governments fail to collaborate to lift vaccination rates globally. 

“Sooner or later we get into a situation where we have more variants popping up, then it will become a forever problem rather than the problem that can be dealt with,” he said. 

While the research finds public service capacity is an issue, Prantl does not necessarily believe a bigger government workforce is the solution. 

“I would focus more on the training aspect, the mindset, and also the willingness to accept policy failure as an important part of policy innovation,” he said. 

Prantl said his training sessions with public servants had focused on shifting mindsets to move away from pre-designed policies and siloed approaches. 

“As a first step: how do we perceive and understand the problem? Where do we come from? What is our mindset with which we disaggregate problems?”

“The next step is how do we draw the boundaries around the problem? So there is not only one way of framing a problem; there are multiple ways and depending on how we frame problems we can then arrive at different policy conclusions.

“What we really want is a public service that is more nimble and more creative in solving problems, and also then open to create networks amongst government agencies which go beyond whole-of-government approaches.” 

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