Bridging the institutional void: collaborating to solve wicked problems


A rusted cast iron water main cover in the desert

There’s a Californian saying that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.

The American west’s long-running water wars have been exacerbated by the cross-jurisdictional nature of most waterways and the need to balance resources between one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, primary producers and the environment.

“Those assumptions are often what make the wicked problems wicked.”

There are similar problems on the driest inhabited continent (minus the Los Angeles factor) where the most productive river catchment crosses three states and is subject to periodic droughts. Beyond water, Australia’s federated system means there are plenty of policy areas where multiple agencies and even governments need to work together to deal with complex, ever-changing problems involving varied interests.

Collaboration, then, is unavoidable. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Working together effectively to tackle wicked problems in an “institutional void” — where there is no existing governance structure — can be done well by embracing the DIAD approach — incorporating diversity, interdependence and authentic dialogue — argues University of California Berkeley Professor Judith Innes.

Innes discussed her findings from 20 years of research on collaborative methods at an event at the Melbourne School of Design earlier this month, focusing on three cases of collaborative action on water in California.

Water is one common area — though by no means the only one — that suffers from institutional void, where dispersed authority results in problems falling between the cracks, vocal interests tend to proliferate, and no single actor can take meaningful action on their own, often resulting in paralysis.

She suggests this list of conditions for authentic dialogue:

  • all relevant stakeholders are included
  • parties have a shared purpose and task
  • it’s self organised (the group themselves knows how to do it best)
  • communication needs to be trustworthy: legitimate, accurate, comprehensible, sincere.
  • high-quality, agreed-on information is available
  • parties challenge assumptions and status quo
  • don’t seek consensus until you’ve explored all the options

In deciding who to include in talks, it’s important to include both the deal makers — those who can make things happen — and the potential deal breakers, even if this can seem unsavoury, Innes says.

Interdependence is a key element in who should participate. Each party has to need something from the others, and must offer something in turn. That doesn’t mean you don’t include weaker interests — potential tenants in a low income housing project, for example — because those who don’t hold formal power are often a source of important knowledge and legitimacy.

If her conditions for collaboration are fulfilled, authentic dialogue can create the space for reciprocity and a level of trust between often mutually suspicious parties, which improves the ability to work together productively.

Case study: the Sacramento Water Forum

The creation of an organisation to deal with the water needs of residents, farmers and the environment around Sacramento is one highly successful example of collaboration, Innes says.

In the 1990s the insitutional void around the Sacramento river, the largest in California, saw urban needs competing with agriculture and environmentalists suing to ensure there was enough water to maintain fish populations at healthy levels.

City and county staff decided to see if they could figure out a way to deal with the problem on their own steam. This was outside official channels, so although local governments didn’t have control, they gave funds to see if a solution could be reached.

One of the first things they found was that although interest groups had strongly held positions, they mostly didn’t have a clear idea of what the end game was. It took two years to get to the point of being able to start negotiating.

“Lots of people think you just start negotiating right away, but you don’t,” Innes argues.

With the help of expert facilitators and staff mostly on loan from the city and county, agencies, the 35 stakeholders — water providers, environmentalists, farmers, real estate interests — were eventually able to agree on two coequal goals: a safe, reliable water supply for regional economic growth, and preserving fishery, recreation and aesthetic values of the river system.

The group decided which topics to address, who was going to do what, and set up small working groups. These groups came up with most of the ideas.

There was a policy that parties had to leave their guns at the door, so to speak, and disclose any actions they were taking that would affect the process, such as lobbying for legislation or undertaking lawsuits.

“Sometimes that would happen and people would get really mad. Sometimes they’d go okay, this is the way it works,” Innes explains.

In fact, while it’s often assumed consensus building requires the avoidance of conflict, that’s “not true”, she says. “There was a lot of storm and drama, let’s say.”


Ultimately, and remarkably, the process delivered consensus agreement. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but it eliminated most of the political risk for government.

“In this case they ended up with 100% because everyone got a piece of this package. Nobody would agree to the package unless it had everyone in it,” she explains. That’s what the city and county had to accept, that there was this whole package. They couldn’t say oh we don’t like that part or the whole thing would fall apart.”

It was such a productive approach that the group managed to reach agreement on relevant issues that weren’t even on the original agenda as they realised a solution would need to include other problems, such as groundwater management.

A permanent, smaller-scale collaborative effort was created to supervise implementation and deal with the inevitable unseen problems.

Re-examining the assumptions underpinning business as usual can be hugely productive in such situations, Innes thinks.

“Those assumptions are often what make the wicked problems wicked,” she says.

“We can’t figure out the solution because we’re not looking at the underlying assumptions we’re making that we don’t have to make. Often it’s the status quo that is hiding the problem.”

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