Digital 2.0 for “Wicked” problems
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 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.
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.
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.
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem
– Gig buddies: http://stayuplate.org/gig-buddies-project/
– Digital Government @ Work (LSE book review): http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2013/11/21/book-review-digital-government-work-a-social-informatics-perspective/
– Managed Networks in health: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/news/newsrecords/2013/managed-networks-in-healthcare.aspx
– Patchwork: http://patchworkhq.com/