By Joshua Chambers

19 May 2015

How can government tackle increasing complexity? Joshua Chambers examines international approaches to solving such knotty problems as climate change, immigration and terrorism

Famously, Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead at the same time – and the same seems true of government. It can nimbly manage school systems, police forces, and all of the basic elements of administration. But the federal structures first envisaged by the Victorians seem completely incapable of dealing with the most complex policy areas.

In particular, government struggles with so-called “wicked problems”. These are policy areas that affect vast numbers of people, all with differing opinions on the problem and the solution, and cut across a swathe of traditional departments. 

As economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the 2007 book The Black Swan, has noted, globalisation is causing increasingly complex problems which governments much face. Climate change, terrorism and immigration are good examples. 

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Traditional departmental structures are looking less effective as they struggle to find ways to cope. For example, a recent CSW piece by former Decc adviser Duncan Brack argued that government was failing to set a coherent policy to tackle climate change, with differing departmental interests preventing a single strategy taking shape. 

Officials across the world are considering how to re-engineer government to cope with these complex new challenges. The new American secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, examined this topic while an academic at Harvard University in his paper The Architecture of Government in the Face of Terrorism. He was looking at how government could be structured to tackle the problem of terrorism, a multi-faceted issue that requires huge inter-agency cooperation.

The Bush administration established the Department of Homeland Security in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. This merged responsibilities from across government, including customs and the coastguard. But Carter disagrees with this approach: the mergers might help tackle the wicked problem, but those agencies have other functions that can be disrupted by change.

Instead, the new defence secretary calls for a matrix approach where agencies are given specific responsibilities and targets. Then, a coordinating secretariat oversees this work and monitors progress against key objectives.

This paper inspired changes to Singapore’s system of government, which has been adjusted in recent years to cope with wicked problems. For example, it has set up a National Climate Change Secretariat and a National Population and Talent Division to oversee policymaking on carbon emissions and immigration.

A key difficulty that Singapore has had to overcome is that agencies must be willing to compromise with one another. As Peter Ho, Singapore’s former civil service head – who pioneered this approach – told FutureGov.Asia, “agencies must have the mindset that they don’t come to the table just trying to protect their interests at all costs”. Permanent secretaries must be responsible for cross-agency projects, and should constantly check to ensure their staff are collaborating with people in other departments. “One of the most important skills which a leader in the civil service must have is the skill of nagging,” Ho said. “You must nag! The moment you take your eye off the ball, everything will lapse.” 

This also applies to information sharing, which is vital when tackling wicked problems. The book Blown to Bits by Evans and Wurster notes that information tends to flow in a vertical direction in silos – from employees to their bosses – but wicked problems require it to flow horizontally so that every agency has exactly the same information and can adjust their responses accordingly.

Singapore has retained its traditional departments because they prove adept at handling general administration. But when new priorities come along, it quickly sets up new coordinating offices. For example, it has just launched the Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO) to oversee all issues relating to technology and public services, including supporting an ageing demographic, using data to improve transportation, and upgrading national communications infrastructure. I recently interviewed the Smart Nation minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his team of civil servants. Their key task is to inject a sense of urgency, he said. “The point is not to be held up by bureaucratic inertia or infighting.”

Singapore’s small size means there are fewer levels of government, so it’s easy to trial new approaches. For example, it has also reengineered its citizen-facing services to cope with greater complexity. It set up the Municipal Services Office to coordinate all citizen-facing activity – the key point being that a citizen should only contact government once, even if it’s the wrong agency. This office has also helped with digital services, standardising response times to citizen complaints so that a new app can allow citizens to give feedback on all public services. This approach is also being adopted elsewhere, with Service NSW performing a similar role in New South Wales, Australia.​

But the most exciting idea in Singapore is the Strategic Policy Unit. This new team has been tasked with considering the toughest wicked problems on a timescale of 10 years, in a bid to ensure longer-term policymaking. It will be staffed by a crack team of the most talented civil servants, and has the power to establish new coordinating secretariats for individual issues. Most importantly, it has the power to allocate manpower and budget, ensuring that departments make trade-offs and fully commit to projects.

The new government has avoided throwing Whitehall into confusion by merging and restructuring departments, but Britain cannot afford not to tackle the big issues it is facing. Traditional departments may be unable to deliver those substantive reforms, and Singapore’s example suggests new coordinating structures and approaches could see a quantum leap in British governance. 

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