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Digital 2.0 for “Wicked” problems

November 27, 2013

Twitter: #dgtl4wkd

Digital might just be moving into a second phase, where complex problems are resolved by people operating in a digital network.

A little while ago I was invited to Parliament to debate the central questions of Digital. The panel was chaired by the MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Chi Onwurah. Chi has 20 years experience as an ICT engineer and retains an active interest in Digital.

We were joined by Mike Bracken (Executive Director of the Government Digital Service – GDS) and the authors of an important new book called “Digital Government @ Work”, Rob Wilson and Ian McLaughlin. The debate was lively and informative, with great questions from the floor.

This blog sets out the opening address I gave (roughly speaking) and some of the conversation that followed, in order to continue and widen the discussion.

Three of the many forms of digital

I began by focusing  the debate on three aspects of digital:

– Transactional digital

– Social Media

– “Wicked” problem solving with digital

Wicked problem solving is central to Rob and Ian’s book and is at the core of this debate. I’ll talk a little more about what “wicked” means, below.

Of course these three aspects of digital are closely related –  and focussing on these leaves out other digital matters , such as assisted digital, cyber security, open data, digital legacy, identity management and so on.  But you can’t cover everything in an evening!

Transactional Digital

Transactional Digital is where the Government Digital Service (GDS) has firmly set its sights. And has created show case exemplars for how to make digital services that “are so good, people prefer to use them”.  A breath of fresh and an attitude of “lets do this quickly, cheaply and very well” has swept across central government. It is transforming the way web sites serve citizens and delivering great outcomes both for customer experience and for cost reduction.  Although Mike, would rather we talk about “users” than “citizens”, the point is the same.

Transactional digital is also where most local authorities have set their “channel shift sights”, many with excellent results.

Social Media

Many people have sped away with the power of social media in government – and many others remain dubious of its value. Others are alert to the value of social media, for “telling people things” and believe its value stops there. It does not. Social Media’s great transformative power is in creating networks of people facing similar issues and quickly enabling them to shape solutions. Think Arab Spring. Also think of the clever ways communities are “co-producing” new services for themselves.

“Gig Buddies” (see below) is a great example of this, where people use social media to pair up people with and without learning disabilities to be friends and to go to events together. This gives carers time off and provides people with more freedoms.

It’s the sort of outcome a council would want to provide, but its not delivered by a council.

Wicked Problems

A great proportion of the costs incurred by Local Authorities relate to solving “wicked” problems. The term comes from the academic study of problem solving. Problems are not only “simple” or “hard”. Beyond hard to solve problems are wicked problems. A wicked problem is one where, an effort to solve one aspect of a problem, reveals or creates others.  Wicked problems abound in the complex territory of social care.

The book “Digital Government @ work” presents us with an example wicked problem. Mrs Canybody is a charity worker in an organisation safeguarding children and young people.  We are introduced to Mary, who is a single mother, who after seeking to resolve some complex issues has been re-housed to move her physically away from the cause of some of her problems.

We then meet Derek. He has been Mary’s pimp, but after a spell in prison has declared himself to be a reformed character. He is the father of Mary’s child and wishes to be re-united.

Both are now receiving counselling from the same charity.

Clearly, solving Derek’s problem may create an issue for Mary.  And solving Mary’s problem may create an issue for Derek. And their neighbours. And Mary’s child. A wicked problem indeed. And massively simplified for the purposes of a quick blog.

Mrs Cannybody is grappling with the problem of how to act in Mary’s best interests. This is typical of the sorts of problems social care teams address all the time. If you want to know how to solve a wicked problem, ask a team of social workers!

Transactions in local government

The LGA shows that large local authorities deliver around 1,050 products and services. Socitm has shown that a good 100 or so business processes lend themselves to online customer interactions, or “digital transactions”.  Simple (non-wicked) issues like fixing pot holes, removing graffiti, collecting missed bins and so on are good candidates for digital transactions.  Its an important 10% of what a council does, and authorities up and down the land are working hard to do it better, many with spectacular results.

But the authority’s bigger worries relate to the 90% of social care, housing, schools, planning and so on. Sure, not all of the 90% is wicked – but neither is it possible to reduce it all to a “transaction”, digital or otherwise.

Wicked:  ICT is not the answer?

Conventional ICT integration and transactional digital may not be the best answer.

Back in the book, the charity’s head of ICT thinks he has the answer. He commissions a business case for a data warehouse. All the information relating to Derek and Mary would be stored in the database and be accessible to anyone working with either case. Many Councils already have such a system and there is much work going on to join them up with charities, health care and other agents who might also share interests in Derek and Mary’s welfare.

There is great public demand for such agencies to work together more effectively, as the Baby P, Victoria Climbié  and  Soham reports all showed.

Mrs Cannybody is not convinced a big database will be in the interests of Mary or Derek. She is concerned that the relationships in which Mary is embedded are complex.  And while sharing some information might very well be in Mary’s interests, sharing other information absolutely might not. These information sharing decisions, Mrs Cannybody realises, cannot easily be automated. They are contextual and depend on trust, understanding and other human factors.

So, if Transactional Digital and ICT Integration are not the answer, what is?

An alternative digital

Digital Government @ Work offers a vision of a “federated virtual agency”. That sounds very academic (not surprisingly, the book is written by academics), so here’s what I think it means. The problem with merging all the complex information is not only in who gets access to it, when and for what purposes. It is also that it creates another problem. Instead of lots of agencies in separate silos, it creates one big silo with all its data management overheads and all the necessary information compromises required to create a “one size fits all” solution.

So instead, the separate agencies might continue to manage and govern their own information to the specific needs of the organisation’s purpose. But individuals might, through the ubiquitous power of digital, know who talk to in another agency about a particular case. And those humans can make a case by case judgement over which information to share.

Managed networks

I have been interested to see how this is currently developing in health. Professor Ferlie of Kings College London has argued (see below) that a governance model of “managed networks” may be a way forward in tackling health policy problems.  He suggests that “networks represent the ‘least bad’ governance mode for these complex ‘wicked problem’ based policy arenas, when compared to markets or hierarchies. We also see such ‘wicked problem’ arenas as pervasive in scope and we argue they should be influential in policy design.” Elsewhere he suggest that managed networks need to be driven by “a small energised, ‘hybrid’ leadership team, containing a mix of doctors, nurses and managers”.

In other words people having quick and easy access to colleagues who can help create solutions. Sounds like social media…

Back in Local Government, some very innovative solutions are emerging that offer managed networks in social care.  A good example of this is Patchwork. This is a secure social media site for “Connecting professionals across public services to deliver better results”.  Staff from multiple agencies can see who in other networked agencies are working with their clients and then talk with them about how to help ensure the client’s best outcome.  This (and there are others) is a simple, cost effective solution that understands the heart of the problem and offers an appropriate solution.

The next digital

In Chi’s LSE review of the Digital Government @ Work book, she applauds the profound analysis of the current state of play. But laments the absence of futurology – setting out the path to the “sunlit uplands” of the future is not the purpose of the book.

As the President of the Society for IT Leaders in public service (Socitm), I’d like to have a stab at a little future gazing. Its one of the perks of the role!

Digital, beyond transactions and integrated data bases, has a great deal to offer to help creative people solve “wicked” problems, in my view. Managed Networks of care professionals, may just be the new digital flower about to flourish.

A nation where staff from multiple agencies can see at a glance which agencies are working with their client and how to contact them, sounds like an improved nation.  A nation where agencies alert others when they have a concern about a client, sounds better still.

Simple, secure, social media style interactions like these may deliver substantially more than a multi agency integrated database of case records – at a substantially lower cost. With considerably less information safeguarding risk.  This requires a maturity in the understanding of the “networked power” offered by social media, so it can’t be part of “Digital 1.0”.

Conclusion:  My crystal ball suggests that the next wave of digital innovation (or “Digital 2.0”) will have a lot to offer multi-agency teams grappling with “wicked” problems.

What do you think?


Twitter note: There has been a flurry of twitter chats about this blog post. To keep track of them, pls now use the hashtag:  #dgtl4wkd

[For people new to twitter, thats “Digital for Wicked”-  but in fewer characters!]


Some links of interest

Here’s some stuff that expands on some of the points raised in this blog.

– Wicked Problems:

– Gig buddies:

– Digital Government @ Work (LSE book review):

– Managed Networks in health:

– Patchwork:

  1. Thanks for referencing Stayuplate. Its not often an organisation based on the escapades of a punk band makes it in to a public service CIO’s blog.

  2. Simon,

    You are welcome. I think you guys do really important stuff to ensure people are treated with freedoms and have dignity. Although dignity is not always associated with punk bands (!), I know what you are doing does this.

    This extract from your web site captures this really well:

    “Going out to see bands, clubbing, or seeing friends is part of everyday life for lots of people. However, if you have a learning disability you may need support to do this. We have found that lots of people with learning disabilities aren’t able to lead full and active social lives because their support workers finish at 10pm. Meaning lots of people with learning disabilities leave events at 9pm.”

    Putting the rock and roll into social care!

  3. Phil permalink

    This is a great piece and ties in with some of the stuff we’re trying to achieve with LocalGov Digital (

    Most local governments have some sort of channel shift programme in place, but as you suggest this is often “Digital 1.0”, that is, the addition of digital as an extra channel to an existing service with little or no change to how that service operates. Arguably, another Digital 1.0 shift might include using Yammer to talk to people one already knows in one’s own organisation. It’s all the same stuff, but online.

    A true shift to what you’ve called “Digital 2.0” looks at re-designing the relationships between those providing a service across multiple agencies and also with the public. It also looks at re-designing services around digital, whilst still making provision for who don’t want to or can’t use digital.

    One word of warning though. Sometimes it takes the experience of 1.0 before people really understand the potential of digital and can move on to 2.0, particularly those that haven’t used it before in their professional life. It’s making those digital connections with those they already know and perhaps making mistakes without of the fear of embarrassing oneself to strangers, before they can move on to 2.0.

    • Phil,

      That’s true, the automation of existing processes just results in “the same, but online” – scarcely transformational. We may disagree a little here. I think the redesign of existing “services” is part and parcel of Digital as we currently know and love it. Digital 1.0, as delivered throughout the land in councils, charities and central government does that. Certainly the GDS exemplars all embrace service and business process re-design.

      I think the Digital 2 opportunity goes beyond re-designing existing services. At Solihull we have a focus on “lives not services”. We are interested in how we can help facilitate positive changes in peoples lives, more than we are interested in delivering great services. We are still learning what that practically means; perhaps that’s a subject for another blog.

      Digital 2.0 harnesses the “networked power” of people in multiple agencies simply knowing who each other are and how to talk to them about “wicked”, complex and simple problems. That’s not re-designing existing work flows and services. Its actually creating new knowledge networks that have as their focus “lives not services”.

      Your cautionary note is wise. There is a danger of embracing digital 2.0 in a world where digital 1.0 is not clearly understood. I think its a risk worth taking though. I’m sure waiting until everyone could drive before some people learned how to fly would not have been the wisest path to economic development! Its great to have #localgovdigital helping with the flying lessons.

      • Phil permalink

        Which GDS exemplars are the best at embracing service re-design, do you think?

      • Phil, I think that the DVLA’s vehicle registration process, that required to get the hundreds of thousands of MOT garages online, in order for it to work is an example of GDS service re-design.

  4. Dan Slee permalink

    Good stuff, Steve. I often come back to something the chief executive of Coventry City Council Martin Reeves said at a social media event. He’s a fan of social media. He can see that it can work.

    He told the room how he’d just been at a conference of 50 chief execs for the weekend and not one of them had mentioned the stuff.

    Don’t talk about social media, he said. Talk about the solutions you can bring that actually in passing come from social media. That makes a lot of sense.

    In 2013, it needs to be tackling the big picture stuff and the wicked issues. If we’re still talking proudly about gritting tweets as the high point of local government social media then well have failed.

    That means getting people with digital skills into the room with the social workers or the senior managers while they wrestle with a problem. That means chucking out the conventional structures or maybe forming a digital skunkworks to tackle problems across the authority.

    I’d love to see that happen.

  5. Hi Steve

    It is really refreshing reading this as i’m not entirely convinced based on experience that many others understand the problems from the viewpoint of residents, users, citizens etc. Firstly most problems are generally framed in an organisational context (how can we as an organisation meet these needs) and that is often the first barrier to most peoples view of a solution. You highlight some great examples where external and user driven views create new and innovative solutions and services – (how can we meet the needs of users)

    A few things occur to me…i’m less concerned by any transition from digital 1.0 to 2.0 or whatever comes next…the key thing for me is not in the “how we solve wicked problems” but in how we create the right climate for wicked problems to be solved in a more co-productive and user focused way – localgovdigital are promoting the framework in this context ( …and that doesn’t have to involve the local authority if they aren’t required…we should be considering what it means to “let go” and allow wicked problems to be solved without us…surrounding this we need to consider new models of governance but we shouldn’t spend the time focusing on the governance we should allow that to emerge once we understand what it needs to do…that may look very different in different areas. We need to be more responsive and agile in the whole context.

    I’d really like to have a conversation at some point and find out more about the social council work that you guys are doing…I think there is much to share and learn from each other…Perhaps we could arrange a field trip 🙂

    • Carl,

      Agreed, it’s not about “how we solve wicked problems”. I would go so far as to say wicked problems are not solvable – in most cases. That’s what makes them wicked. The art is to produce the best outcome in the context of the wicked problem. Which means imperfect compromises resulting in a state that is better than it was before. Not necessarily “solving” the problem, but “resolving” the tensions that exist within the problem as far as it is possible to do so.

      I’m not a social worker, but I’m sure that one of the things they do really well is judging when to let go and when not to. Digital practitioners can learn from that and also help facilitate it. The latent genius of digital is, I completely agree with you, in creating networks of people that enable practical support without “us”. Like Gig Buddies does. As well as that “disintermediation” though, I think there is a role for creating networks of support people (across multiple agencies) grappling with different aspects of the same wicked problems.

      I know you are at the Socitm conference in December, hopefully we can grab a moment to talk then – and arrange those field trips!

  6. Hi Steve,

    Nice review. Just a thought: how’s this for a stab at the ‘sunlit uplands’ of “federation and federability”?


    • Hmmm, Mark. Enterprise architecture’s silver bullet of modular Business Process Management. I enjoyed our debate at IP expo, but I remain unconvinced that 2023 will see the world completely architected in this way. It does remind me of the solution Mrs Cannybody’s ICT Head wanted to offer. Different, of course, but with some conceptual similarities. A subject for another blog, I think?

  7. Great article. Just one thing to add. I think there’s an important role for design in here – by which I mean service design – which is a bit different from UX or product design. Key aspect is that it is about user-centred thinking – not technology-centred.

    I’m a bit fearful that we’re entering an era of digital-centred thinking, which for me is exciting, but risks us missing the next wave eg internet of things – which would further disrupt a model like patchwork. But if we stay focused on the user, and apply digital (and indeed the next wave after digital) to that user need – then we stand a better chance of navigating through all this change.

    To evidence my point – I’m developing the digital strategy for my employer, but I’m a service designer (with a digital background). I think this is because the service design approach is about solving system problems, whereas digital is a set of tools you use to craft the solution.

    Great stuff though – good read.

    • Joel,

      For the 10% of council “stuff” that can be reduced to transactions! there is absolutely a role for design. And user centric design is the only kind of design I would want near anything digital.

      I’m also interested in the other 90% of council “stuff” though. The non transactional. It seems to me that the “customer” in that case (eg Mary) is often not the digital user (eg Mrs Cannybody). So the design thinking needs to be extracted out a level beyond the digital user to meet real customer needs.

  8. Andy Hopkirk permalink

    Steve, I like, “it’s not about “how we solve wicked problems”. I would go so far as to say wicked problems are not solvable – in most cases. That’s what makes them wicked. The art is to produce the best outcome in the context of the wicked problem. Which means imperfect compromises…”

    Your observation brings to the fore who determines what the compromise is going to be. Past (current) practice has been (is) to ration service via control from the centre who ‘know all and act in the common not individual interest’. The new technical opportunity is to invert that, for the centre patently does not know all and the common interest may not be my interest as an individual citizen-tax payer. Much better from my individual perspective to ‘pull service to me as I want it’ rather than accept what ‘the centre deigns to push’.

    So I agree with your conclusion that social/digital networks of interested parties will be a big part of what’s going to happen – it can’t be just ‘technology’; but I’d only be really happy with that if it’s not just a case of getting better managed provider network ‘pushes’. That would be missing the bigger inversion opportunity, if one wanted to go there. Signs of visibly incorporated individual and integrated citizen ‘pulls’ being manifest in either or both of technical and social architectures will the acid test, I’d suggest.

  9. Thanks Steve this is such a useful article. It’s a delight to hear someone deep in the bureacracy (a) taking social care as the starting point for digital talk (b) working back from outcomes, rather than forward from resources/infrastructure. Powerful stuff.

    I like the concept of ‘wicked problems’ because it gives strategists in social care a language for looking to the future of ‘services’.

    Now the social care tide is going out, very rapidly in some places, citizens are going to take up challenges that would previously have been left to care services. We are already being proactively challenged to do that: my posts at are mostly about how it’s being executed.

    My experience in social care is that citizens will take on a great deal – if they know there’s a backstop. It’s when a problem becomes wicked, that it will be thrust onto a statutory body: because the people around it cannot ignore it or solve it themselves. Social care is going to be about two things: how we proactively equip communities to care; and how we act as backstop when a wicked problem lurches towards us, seemingly out of nowhere. Because care is now being pushed back into communities, we find that individuals, family carers, friendship networks and local communities are more than ever key parts of the knowledge network. Managed networks will need to find a way to cope with that if they are to be part of a solution for wicked problems in social care.

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