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Tackling Wicked Problems Takes Resident Engagement

This August 2013 article addresses the increasing need for local governments to utilize public engagement and collaboration in order to address local, national and global issues despite the trend of citizen detachment from public problem solving, and the challenge of may government officials not having the resources or knowledge to do so.

It was written by NCDD Supporting Member Mike Huggins and Cheryl Hilvert for the International City/County Management Association’s  (ICMA) magazine, Public Management. ICMA’s mission is to create excellence in local governance by developing and fostering professional management to build better communities.

From the article:

In dealing with the local impacts of national and global issues and the myriad other problems confronting local governments, managers must do so in a public policy context more frequently characterized by widely dispersed expertise in the community, rapidly expanding social media platforms and venues for sharing information and opinions, more organized and active advocacy groups, more incivility in public discourse, and a declining public trust in government.

The difficult issues and challenging environments confronting local governments result in managers operating more and more in the realm of what may be called wicked problems: complex, interdependent issues that lack a clear problem definition and involve the conflicting perspectives of multiple stakeholders.

While collaboration and engagement are suggested as an appropriate approach to wicked problems, to many this represents a challenge that is wicked in and of itself. Many managers simply don’t know where to begin, how to plan effective programs for engagement, how to measure their efforts, or where to turn for resources and assistance.


The article outlines several emerging strategies coming from a variety of sources, including Carolyn Lukensmeyer and the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). Following a review of the research findings, the author’s provide a list of 10 suggestions that managers should consider in building an effective engagement strategy for their communities:

  1. Take stock of what you are already doing, distinguishing between exchange and engagement efforts.
  2. Assess how receptive your organization is to initiatives from community groups and to what extent your organizational culture supports civic engagement.
  3. Work with your elected officials to convene a community conversation on engagement to hear from residents how they wish to be involved in shaping community life and how local government could contribute to meeting their aspirations.
  4. Identify potential issues that need resident engagement and involvement, including new ways staff could interact with residents in the day-to-day delivery of services.
  5. Plan an engagement event by matching the purpose and intended outcomes with the appropriate technique and activity.
  6. Actively recruit diverse stakeholder groups beyond the “usual suspects” who always participate.
  7. Provide participants multiple opportunities to compare values and interests and articulate self-interests, and include opportunities in both large forums and small-group discussions.
  8. Seek to combine both online and face-to-face engagement opportunities and venues.
  9. Design engagement initiatives to move from talk to action by identifying tangible goals and desired outcomes; then, measure your success.
  10. Develop an ongoing program in partnership with residents and community organizations to build meaningful engagement and facilitate resident problem solving in the work of local government.

Article conclusions:

At the end of the day, effective civic action and problem solving depends on ordinary individuals thinking of themselves as productive people who hold themselves accountable—people who can build things, do things, come up with ideas and resources, and be bold in their approach. Communities need places and spaces where people can develop their civic capacities and their public lives.

Local governments need to recognize the importance of engagement work as well as the need for effective plans for engagement and ways to measure the results of their efforts. The local government manager will play a key leadership role in achieving these goals.

Resource Link: http://webapps.icma.org/pm/9507/public/cover.cfm?title=Tackling+Wicked+Problems+Takes+Resident+Engagement++&subtitle&author=Mike+Huggins+and+Cheryl+Hilvert 

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