Solving 'wicked' problems: Policy narratives and 'joined up government'

If only government departments worked together we could solve even the most 'wicked' of problems, right? Well, not, quite. In this post,  Gemma Carey (@gemcarey) shares her insights into 'joined up government' implementation and what we can learn about efforts to solve the wicked problem of social exclusion through the Social Inclusion Agenda. This article was originally posted in The Policy Space.


'Joined-up government’ approaches have emerged in many industrialised countries as a means to tackle persistent ‘wicked’ public and social policy problems. Despite this, limited evidence exists concerning their implementation or effectiveness.

In 2007, the Australian Federal Government launched a ‘joined-up’ approach to address the ‘wicked’ problem of social exclusion – the Social Inclusion Agenda. While the Social Inclusion Agenda (SIA) has since been abandoned, there is much we can learn from its implementation.

In a recent article, we reported on research which explored the process of joining-up within federal government under the SIA, drawing on interviews with senior federal policymakers (a related article on joining-up between sectors can be found here).

Much of the implementation of the SIA hinged on the ‘policy narrative’ of social inclusion, to capture interest across agencies and sectors. This type of ‘communicative’ instruments are not intended to modify behaviour as such, but to bring about change in how actors perceive the problem and, through this, shift values.

When asked whether policy narratives were valuable tools for change, policymakers stated that it acted as a critical rallying point, creating opportunities for new policy windows:

“…value was created by the government being clear that they wanted to pursue a Social Inclusion Agenda.  And it gets into people’s minds, and it provides a hook to have policy discussions that you might not otherwise have had.  So it’s kind of indirect.”

Communicative tools, such as policy narratives, are seen as soft interventions, which articulate new policy problems but are not aimed at creating changes in process. Nonetheless, under the SIA policymakers attempted to operationalize the narrative and apply it to their practice, in terms of the design and conceptualisation of policies and programs:

“Whenever you have a narrative that’s big like social inclusion… it can get torn down so quickly.  So the Social Inclusion Agenda is … at a high level, so you can go okay, there’s your social inclusion narrative that means we want everyone to be able to participate in society and to be able to access things that other people can access.  [But we] don’t have enough money to do that… So it’s easy to have your narrative, but at the level of policy [is where] you get all the arguments.” [G04]

While effective policy narratives are thought to be inspirational, in this instance the scale of change articulated by the narrative of social inclusion was prohibitive. The idea that all Australians should be given the opportunity to be socially, economically and civically included was difficult for policymakers to translate into practice. In particular, the SIA was seen as having diffuse, or vague, domains of responsibility:

“I think if you ask the Prime Minister or the Minister, she would say, ‘everything we do, as a Labor Party, is committed to that broad national social inclusion’...  So I mean I think it provides a strong motivator for many of the parliamentary MPs, but it’s too big for any one department to say, ‘well I’m going to tackle that big vision’.” [G06]

This highlights the need for what Janine O’Flynn has called a ‘supportive architecture’ for joined-up initiatives. In the case of the SIA, this architecture was the creation of new administrative structures, aimed at creating integration and coordination between different departments in order to achieve more effective policy solutions.

The Social Inclusion Unit was principally responsible for driving and coordinating action on social inclusion across government and creating alignment between policies developed in different areas of government. While the Unit was placed in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC) to give it greater authority, policymakers felt that this created an odd structure, where the Unit was detached from the Minister for Social Inclusion:

“It becomes awkward, there's ambiguity.  And I fully understand why they put that in there because they wanted to make sure that people had some clout, the concept had some clout and it has Prime Ministerial backing...  But that split responsibility can be quite tricky to manage.” [G02]

This arrangement was described as limiting the ability of the Social Inclusion Unit to work across government, and with ministers, to drive the implementation of the SIA:

“There was an odd political structure where you've got it sitting in PMC and it sort of makes sense but… the Social Inclusion Unit, you know, it's not necessarily a driver."

Interestingly, policymakers conceptualised strong mechanisms as being based within the existing siloed departmental structure, undermining the SIA at its most basic level.  In short, they argued that the way to make joined-up government  most effective is to not join up government at all.

The finding that interdepartmental units are unable to generate collaborative action across departments is consistent with other empirical research on joined-up government. The Social Inclusion Unit had no formal authority over other departments, limiting its ability to influence activities across government departments. Interdepartmental groups charged with leading joined-up government that have no formal authority in other departments generate limited change and create “serious dysfunction”. Here, departments continue to carry the burden of accountability and implementation, while interdepartmental teams generate ideas, but lack the implementation capacity or accountability mechanisms to get things done.

O’Flynn (et al., 2011) suggest that a strong supportive architecture for joined-up government would take a ‘matrix’ form, emphasising horizontal and vertical integration and support. To develop this idea further and examine what such a matrix would look like, the authors have undertaken an evidence synthesis of available exploratory research on the process of creating joined-up government. From this, we aim to draw together the diverse experiences of joined-up-government to provide knowledge of what works for planning and design of future efforts. The synthesis will be released shortly with the International Journal of Public Administration.

Posted by @corr_lara