AuthorMassey, Andrew
  1. Introduction

    The late US academic, Don K. Price, referred to public administration as the seamy side of politics. By this he meant that the institutions of public administration are what make things happen; public administration is responsible for the successful delivery of public services (Price, 1983). These services vary across countries, but usually include internal and external security and the provision of justice, a mix of educational and social provision and the regulation of the private sector. It also involves dealing with some problems that have been termed 'wicked'. We see these different interests referred to time and again in different ways through explorations of the link between senior public servants and politicians (elected or appointed) in different countries and how the policy process seeks to address the demands made on public administration. In those countries that pursue a classic Weberian or Wilsonian dichotomy the politicians are responsible for strategic control and planning and public officials responsible for delivery (Kattel, Drechsler and Karo, 2022, pp. 24-90). Except of course, the reality is a lot more complicated than that. Especially if we factor into the discussion different notions of democracy and definitions of accountability (Massey, 2021, pp. 201-226). Then we must also take into consideration the most recent innovations in public administration research and theory with regard to conceptions of public value, efficiency, value added and policy impacts; all things that challenge public services globally and call for innovative solutions.

    This paper will: (1) briefly discuss some of the existential threats (wicked problems) that face public administration globally; (2) look at some defining traits in terms of 'wicked' issues and problems; (3) explore how this is being addressed by bodies such as the OECD as well as individual nations; (4) and briefly discuss how and why an innovative and indeed entrepreneurial approach to dealing with these issues requires bureaucracy. In the space available, the paper obviously cannot do justice to all of these points but will draw the reader's attention to them as a guide to some of the challenges discussed in this special issue.

  2. Threats

    There are a variety of known threats public services need to address and these vary according to the global and local context and over time; that is, there is a temporal nature to many of these (Pollitt, 2008; 2013). Clearly amongst the most pressing are:

    * Climate Change and environmental degradation in their various forms. But public administrators need to explore whether they have the pertinent technology to ensure the goal to achieve, for example, zero harmful emissions do not exacerbate poverty. In a world where energy resources are scarce it is the poor who will suffer most if we do not pay careful attention to how we deliver this (Tigabu, Berkhout and van Beukering, 2017).

    * The end of globalization, or at least the most recent phase. The realization by many nations that they need to reduce their dependence on others for energy and food. This is not new, but we see renewed attention to it during the COVID crisis and the Ukraine war and it will be a major challenge for our integrated economies and supply chains (Van Bergeijk, 2010).

    * Inflation. Uncontrolled inflation destroys economies, ruins societies, and topples regimes and governments (Forbes, Lewis and Ames, 2022).

    * Large scale migration that will continue to grow all the time there are areas at war, suffering drought or with failing economies. This is also frequently connected to international organized crime groups (UK Crown Prosecution Service, 2022).

    * Loss of faith by the general population in their governments and in experts. This varies across different parts of the globe, but research suggests that in many countries this loss of faith, or respect, or deference is rising. It means collective or community supported action to address these issues and threats is itself at risk (Newton and Norton, 2016).

    There are other threats, of course and all of the above are interrelated, they constitute a seamless web of circumstance, and this interconnectedness often makes it seem problematic to address them (Massey, 2021; 2022).

  3. Wicked issues or problems

    Head and Alford (2015) resurrected a conversation located in the 'wicked' problem discussions that arose in the 1970s from a critique of rational-technical or 'engineering' approaches to complex issues of social planning and public policy. These theoretical criticisms of the then existing approaches to public policy evolved due to the perception that the prevailing methodologies included a 'need' for impossibly high levels of goal-clarity, coordination and performance information (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973 apud Head and Alford, 2015), or their neglect of the 'lived' experiences and perspectives of stakeholders and service providers. The best-known critique was Rittel and Webber's 'Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning' (1973). Alford and Head returned to discuss these again, as did the Australian Public Service Commission (2003) in its review of how to address seemingly intransigent problems from the perspective of the Australian Public Service. Their report delivers a useful benchmark on how these wicked issues may be defined and current techniques and technologies deployed to focus on delivery.

    The Australian government adopted the Rittel and Webber critique that claimed modern social problems are generally 'ill defined,' and rely on political judgments rather than scientific certitudes. In this sense, most major public policy problems are 'wicked' (Rittel and Webber, 1973, p. 160), that is, they are inherently resistant to a clear definition and an agreed solution. It's interesting that this paper was written over 50 years ago and we are still as public servants and as academics discussing similar things with regard to addressing problems via the improved recruitment and training of staff and delivering policies. Rittel and Webber identified ten primary characteristics of wicked problems and for many accounts, including the Australian Government's, these provide the starting point for understanding how to approach the problem. These characteristics, or traits, are:

    * There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem;

    * Wicked problems have no 'stopping rule' (i.e., no definitive solution);

    * Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad;

    * There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem;

    * Every (attempted) solution to a wicked problem is a 'one-shot operation'; the results cannot be readily undone, and there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error;

    * Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan;

    * Every wicked problem is essentially unique;

    * Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem;

    * The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways; and

    * The planner has no 'right to be wrong' (i.e., there is no public tolerance of experiments that fail) (Rittel and Webber, 1973 apud Alford and Head, 2015, p. 714).

    Given the remote chance of even defining and understanding wicked problems from a policy perspective, if we accept these characteristics, any in-depth research into the amelioration...

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