Why charities choose wicked problems

Charities and other for-good organisations choose to tackle the wicked problems of our world because no one else can. Wicked problems are complex and interconnected social problems that defy a predefined solution. They are problems that require continual development of solutions that behave like Public Goods, which means they are not viable to be provided by the market. And they are problems that mostly affect the marginalised people in our society, which means the state does not tackle them as they do not affect the median voter. Charities tackle wicked problems through offering services that alleviate some the consequences of the problems and through affecting changes in the systems that cause wicked problems.

What are wicked problems

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber were urban planners at the University of Berkley in California in the 1973 when they wrote an article called: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”. In it they introduced what they called ‘wicked problems’; problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. Rittel and Webber said that wicked problems have 10 important characteristics:

  1. They do not have a definitive formulation.
  2. They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.
  3. Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.
  4. There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.
  5. They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”
  6. There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.
  7. All wicked problems are essentially unique.
  8. Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.
  9. The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.
  10. Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

Why should an almost fifty year old idea about urban planning be relevant to charities and the causes and problems they tackle? Well, the idea didn’t stay with urban planning.

Wicked and messy

By 2007, ‘wicked problems’ had more proponents and a different name. Robert Horn, an American political scientist, called the phenomenon a “Social Mess” and described it as a “set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity—systems of systems—is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” According to Horn, the defining characteristics of a social mess are:

  1. No unique “correct” view of the problem;
  2. Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions;
  3. Most problems are connected to other problems;
  4. Data are often uncertain or missing;
  5. Multiple value conflicts;
  6. Ideological and cultural constraints;
  7. Political constraints;
  8. Economic constraints;
  9. Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking;
  10. Numerous possible intervention points;
  11. Consequences difficult to imagine;
  12. Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity;
  13. Great resistance to change; and,
  14. Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

Over the decades, the idea has been adopted by designers, software developers, statisticians, economists, and policy makers. And the introduction of the term ‘Super wicked problem”, with additional characteristics of ‘Time is running out, no central authority, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it, and policies discount the future irrationally’ helped to encapsulate the biggest problem we face as a species; global climate change.

That’s what a wicked problem is. And there are plenty of them.

Why wicked problems aren’t tackled by the market or state

The social contract (the individual’s relationship with the collective) is enacted by three modes of organising in our modern society; the state, the market and the civil space. Each of these use different methods to get people to deliver their part of the social contract. When a government makes a law, it is with the intention of organising people to adhere to a way of behaving (don’t drink and drive). When a business has a hierarchical structure that sends instructions from higher up to lower down, it is with the intention of organising people to maintain authority, responsibility and accountability (do the work you’ve been told to do). When the actions of one man walking around his garden are leveraged to raise money for charities, it is with the intention of organising people to support other people (financially through donations and socially through ‘cheering’).

Tame problems make for easy value exchange

Businesses use market modes of organising which only really allow for choosing easy (or ‘tame’ in Rittel and Webber speak) problems with knowable solutions. If you have neck ache the market can offer a wide range of potential solutions from pain killers to heated neck pillows to posture correcting chairs to a massage. And it’s up to you to know which solution fits your problem. In the eyes of the market the problem is solved when there has been a value exchange. You got what you wanted (something to help with your neck ache) and the business got what they wanted (your money).

Businesses don’t tackle wicked problems because even if they could offer solution they wouldn’t have a customer who was willing to pay a market-rate for that solution. Imagine a tech startup that could actually solve homelessness (stop laughing). What would the business model be? They couldn’t charge homeless people, they don’t have any money. Perhaps they could they sell their serve to local government, but once they’ve solved the problem for all their customers they put themselves out of business.

So, the market can’t solve wicked problems.

Limited resources make for easy spending decisions

Governments use state modes of organising which have some capacity for dealing with the wicked problems that arise from complex society. Running a country with all of it’s interrelated systems of health, education, economy, etc., etc., is a very wicked problem but laws, regulations, policy spending decisions, etc., allow governments to choose which problems to tackle and how much focus to give them.

Burton Weisbrod, an American economist who wrote about nonprofits, education, welfare and poverty, suggested that the nonprofit sector existed (at least in part) because of the failure of governments to provide sufficiently for all members of society. Every government has limited resources and will always direct spending at things that satisfy their median voter to try to ensure they are kept in power. These two thing; limited resources and pleasing the median voter, mean no Government ever spends enough on the marginalised people in society.

Weisbrod said that government spending decisions cause a market failure which nonprofit organisations then attempt to resolve. For example; the government chooses how much to to pay nurses (state spending decision). Nurses find their pay insufficient to feed their family (market failure). Charities operate food banks to help nurses feed their family (nonprofit sector response). If the government was to resolve the problem they would do so by paying nurses more, because that’s an instrument available to them within the state mode of organising, but it wouldn’t set up food banks because they are within the civic modes of organising.

So, the state can’t solve wicked problems.

Why charities choose wicked problems

Charities use civic modes of organising which often means they find ways to get people together over something they care about. Food banks only work within the civic modes of organising because it takes a one group of people (those that operate the food bank) to organise another group of people (those making donations to the food bank) in order for another group of people (those using the food bank) for the benefit.

Causes make for narrow solutions

Charities are cause-focused. The cause, is the primary concern of all charities and for-good organisations. Charities have a charitable purpose to tackle their chosen cause because the Charity Commission (and UK charity law) says they have to be (there are twelve charitable purposes to choose from and an ‘other’ category). Choosing a cause and charitable purpose is one of the first steps in registering as a charity. This makes sense if having regulations in place to ensure that only those organisations that are actually doing some good in the world are to benefit from charity status is what is most important, but it makes less if you actually want organisations that can tackle wicked problems. When a charity talks about their cause, they are referring to the wicked problem they are tackling but the problem with being so cause-focused is that it sometimes leads charities to approach the solution in very narrow ways. (I think cause-agnostic charities would be better equipped to contribute towards tackling wicked problems but that’s an aside). Charities have to tackle a wicked problem because it’s legally a part of what it is to be a charity in the UK, but it also limits what they can achieve.

Impacts make for poor measures

Charities are a response to the market failure of governments. choosing not to spend sufficiently on public goods . If a government was able to solve homelessness through providing enough suitable housing, support for addiction, mental health problems, etc., and all those other things that contribute to homelessness, then there would be no need for charities (or tech startups) to tackle that particular wicked problem. But tackling wicked problems is costly, however it is approached. And reducing the impact wicked problems have on people is almost impossible to measure in order to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the charity’s work. Charities have to tackle wicked problems because government spending choices don’t tackle them, but its expensive and almost impossible to measure the impact.

Can charities solve wicked problems?

In an increasingly connected and complex society wicked problems become even more intertwined and impossible to predict what changes will have what outcome. This must be recognised and accepted if charities and for-good organisations are going to have any hope of affecting change. Systems thinking and systems change work offers some chance to positively affect the wicked problems in the direction we might want, but figure out how to truly tackle wicked problems is a wicked problem in itself.

So, can charities solve wicked problems?