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Cameron's 'Big Society' Is Simply Not Wicked Enough!

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You know, there's a good reason why the real social entrepreneurs are not taking Cameron on at his own game. It's because his much debated 'big society' is just not wicked enough. It's tame and won't solve the social problems in the UK, let alone Greece.

You see social crises, and how to solve them, is really all about human behaviour and interaction. Like it or not, we are all pretty much alike. The way we respond to situations is surprisingly predictable, but aggregating people's responses to government policies is extremely unpredictable. History, psychology and our anthropological 'hard wiring' make us easy to read, but only when viewed after the fact. Predicting and managing change is incredibly difficult. Our own emotions can cloud our ability to see the context of the challenges we face.

Sometimes two minds come together and agree on the nature of the problem we face, and suddenly the clouds lift. We, in this instance, are academic, Tim Curtis and social entrepreneur Robert Ashton.

When we swapped ideas it was a moment of revelation as profound as that described by Alan Bennett in The History Boys. You may remember the scene where Hector explains how a passage in a book is spookily found to describe a feeling the reader had previously thought unique to him. That's how it felt to us.

Both of us had come to feel that the way we work could not be described. We take on projects where often the outcome of our work cannot easily be predicted. A conundrum presents itself; usually where attempts to find an enterprising solution to meet a recognised social need are being thwarted. Established practice and perception get in the way of the innovation required.

These are called 'wicked issues'. A wicked issue is a social problem in which the various stakeholders can barely agree on what the definition of the problem should be, let alone on what the solution is. Social issues and problems are intrinsically 'wicked or messy', and it is very dangerous for them to be treated as if they were 'tame' and 'benign'. Real world social problems have no definitive formulation; no point at which it is definitely solved; solutions are not true or false; there is no test for a solution; every solution contributes to a further social problem; there are no well-defined set of solutions; wicked problems are unique; they are symptomatic of other problems; they do not have simple causes; and have numerous possible explanations which in turn frame different policy responses; and, in particular, the social enterprise is not allowed to fail in their attempts to solve wicked problems.

It's what prompts a senior council manager when asked by his chief executive to write a simple letter about an innovative land deal to still be sharing suggested drafts with six colleagues a month later. Finding himself navigating uncharted waters he simply trod water. In the end one of us simply emailed the planned letter recipient, sorted the issue and things started moving again.

Are beginning to see what we mean? It's what's stopping a school finding cash for a new campus, a hospice project gain public support and a successful disability charity the support of its local council, who choose to slash their funding and contract with Serco instead. It's what's stopping a teacher getting the better grades for her pupils that she so desperately wants to achieve. It's what's stopping the anti-social 'hoodie' so hated by the tabloid press getting a foot in the door for job or home.

Here are six criteria you can use to define a 'wicked issue.' As you read them, reflect on your own experience and wait for the penny to drop.

Six Criteria for Wicked Problems
1. You don't understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
Every solution that is offered exposes new aspects of the problem, requiring further adjustments to the potential solutions. There is no definitive statement of the problem': these problems are ill structured and feature an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.

2. There is no stopping rule.
Since there is no definitive the problem', there is also no definitive the solution.' The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources such as time, money or energy, not when an optimal solution emerges.

3. Solutions are not right or wrong.
They are simply better/worse or good enough/not good enough'. The determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula.

4. Each is essentially unique and novel.
No two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. Over time we can acquire wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.

5. There is no given alternative solution.
A host of potential solutions may be devised, but another host are never even thought of. Thus it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgement to determine which should be pursued and implemented.

6. Every solution is a 'one-shot operation'.
Every attempt has consequences. This is the Catch 22'of wicked problems: you can't learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution is expensive and has lasting consequences that may spawn new wicked problems.

And this is where people like us usually step in; confronting what we describe as "strategies for coping, not solving those 'wicked issues". There is no quick fix for wicked problems, no glib formula from a guru self-help management manual about "Seven Steps to Crush Social Complexity" or "Tame Your Way to the Top". The most significant strategy in coping with (rather than solving) and promoting innovative responses is to 'keep the issue wicked'.

It is important that the paradoxes that underlie the social issue are not collapsed into an either/or argument, and that any socially entrepreneurial response, product or service is seen as a prompt for the next question, the next analysis.

Now to cut to the chase, this 'taming of a problem' neatly describes the four barriers we most often have to scramble over, duck around and run at and knock over. It can be tough getting major companies, public servants and frightened community groups to make the changes vital to society's sustainable success.

Typically the manager or leader tries to tame the problem by:
1. Locking down the problem definition. Develop a description of a related problem that you can solve, and declare that to be the problem.

2. Casting the problem as 'just like' a previous problem that has been solved. Ignore or filter out evidence that complicates the picture.

3. Giving up on trying to find a good solution. The manager just follows orders, does the job and tries not to get in trouble.

4. Declaring that there are just a few possible solutions, and focussing on selecting from among them. A specific way to do this is to frame the problem in either/or terms.

While it may seem appealing in the short run, attempting to tame a wicked problem will always fail in the long run. The problem will simply reassert itself, perhaps in a different guise, as if nothing had been done; or worse, the tame solution will exacerbate the problem.

By now I hope you're with us. If not, it's unlikely we'll ever get on well enough to work together. Reading thus far has at least helped you avoid the irritation of dealing with our seemingly irrepressible confidence that 'there's an answer there somewhere, hiding away where we can't yet see it!'

Finally, for both of us, there's evidence to support our view that social entrepreneurship is an attitude; something innate within the activist that drives her or him to act. It's what we are and how we both work. We make no apologies for being different; we just want to help you understand how. More importantly for you, we want you to understand why too.

The social entrepreneur doesn't just seek change within the comfortable boundaries of the corporation; instead the social entrepreneur seeks to influence other organisations, institution and systems, even societies, way outside their personal control.' This is why the government's big society policy is tame. It creates a rag-tag bundle of policy initiatives cobbled together and assumes that each one, on their own, will fix the individual parts of the social system.

This is why we get austerity contradicting growth plans, as if one is Plan A and the other an alternative when we realise that our first tame idea has failed. Politicians and policy-makers are taught to view the world as collections of clearly defined and stable social problems, whose behaviour is predictable. The policy-makers then imagine that knobs, whistles, risers and faders can be used to manipulate society in order to achieve clear outcomes. They tame the social problems and then wonder why society remains 'wicked'.

We can't learn from history, because our recall of history is very poor. We must address each problem that comes along as essentially unique, and give it that honour.