No easy answers to ‘wicked’ problems

FORMER civil service head Peter Ho's article ("Complexity decoded"; last Saturday) gives us useful insights into the challenging tasks faced by civil servants in formulating public policies to resolve the "wicked" problems confronting our society.

The days of solving major problems through an "engineering" approach, such as the introduction of streaming in our education system in 1979 and the Stop At Two family planning policy, have all but ended.

Our society, with a growing pool of well-educated citizens, is not amenable to top-down solutions. More participatory and dialogue-based approaches, like Our Singapore Conversation, are a positive change.

Solutions to wicked problems, such as immigration, transport and health care, take time to work and may have side effects.

There is no immediate and ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Therefore, it is crucial to lend an ear to the people, not just before but especially after implementation of a policy.

For example, MediShield Life seems a perfect solution to address people's concerns about health-care affordability.

But it may lead to unintended consequences in the long term: Will people become less health conscious given that they are protected from large hospital bills?

Will they demand access to more state-of-the-art medical care, leading to runaway health-care costs?

Only time will tell.

Normally, wicked problems will never be fully resolved.

Continuing robust community consultation and stakeholder engagement to effect behavioural changes in Singaporeans and stakeholders, such as insurance companies, medical professionals and hospitals, are required to minimise long-term adverse effects.

Also, we need to further improve the capacity of our Government to solve wicked problems.

The whole-of-government approach, in contrast to the traditional silo approach of ministries, will help significantly.

Government should be structured to ensure people working in various silos are working together, communicating and pursuing broader goals as one. Job rotation, cross-training and informal networking opportunities can break down silos too.

All policies have their intended and unintended consequences. We need to have flexibility, boldness and humility to change course, even if it means admitting failure.

Singaporeans should be made aware of the existence of wicked problems facing the nation.

We cannot remain indifferent as the government-knows-best era is over.

We require the cooperation and coordination of every citizen, institution and corporation to get the best possible outcome from the implementation of a policy.

Edmund Lam (Dr)

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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