Peter Ho, For The Straits Times

How policymakers deal with problems that defy boundaries

How do policymakers deal with complexity and 'wicked problems' that defy boundaries? Answer: Break out of silos, and adopt a 'design approach', looking at how the end-user will be affected by a policy


Boundaries define the world that we live in. Nations demarcate their borders, both on land and at sea. The organisations that we work for are delimited legally and by the scope of their activity. In society, unwritten social norms differentiate what is socially acceptable and what is not.

But we often fall into the trap of thinking of a boundary as something that separates one thing from another. In reality, a boundary does not just separate, but also connects, the system to its environment.

To understand this statement, it is worth recalling what the Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, once wrote: "Everything connects to everything else."

Singaporeans are reminded of this insight once in a while when haze blows across our borders despite our longstanding efforts to maintain a pristine environment.

The rise of complexity

WITH increasing connectivity as a result of globalisation and technologies, complexity around the world will grow. But what is "complexity"? "Complex" is not the same as "complicated". An engineering system is merely complicated. It could be a missile or an aeroplane or a telecommunications satellite. Its inner workings may be very difficult for a layman to understand. But it is designed to perform pre-determined functions that are predictable and repeatable.

In contrast, a complex system will not necessarily behave in a repeatable and pre-determined manner.

A system that is complex contains a large number of independent parts that are connected to each other, and interact with each other in a great many ways. To understand the behaviour of a complex system, we must understand not only the behaviour of each of these parts, but also how they interact with one another.

Cities and countries are undoubtedly complex systems. They are made up of hundreds of thousands of people. Each person interacts with many others producing outcomes that often confound and astonish planners and policymakers.

The surprising "Arab Spring" and the unpredictable political reverberations that have followed, up to and including the latest trouble in Iraq, underscore what we instinctively know - that the Middle East is complex.

Understanding complex systems

EFFORTS to understand such complexities often rely on an assumption - that what is complex can be reduced to simpler subsets that are easier to model, and that when re-combined will produce results that approximate behaviour in the real world.

A notorious example of this faulty approach was the hugely influential Club of Rome report of the early 70s entitled Limits To Growth. It was based on a mathematical model of the global economy and world population that forecast the imminent collapse of civilisation under the pressure of expanding population and shrinking resources. Of course this prediction of a Malthusian catastrophe failed because the model could not account for all the factors involved. But governments around the world had already come under its influence, and adjusted their population policies on a model that eventually proved to be wrong, but only years later.

Wicked problems

THE population problem addressed by the Club of Rome is a classic example of a "wicked problem".

A wicked problem is the result of complexity. It is difficult to solve because there are many stakeholders, but they have conflicting perspectives, different opinions and divergent interests. Please one and you upset many others. Solve one problem and another will arise.

Many examples of wicked problems come from public policy. They could be economic, environmental, political or social, covering issues such as health care, education and social inequalities. Tackling one wicked problem often generates new sets of wicked problems. When the Singapore government successfully curbed population growth in the 1970s, a slew of new wicked problems ensued, including a growing dependency on foreign workers and a rapidly ageing population.

Boundaries and complexity

BOUNDARIES are often used to reduce complexity. This is achieved by drawing boundaries around smaller parts of a larger system in order to make things easier to manage. So nations are divided into provinces, provinces into municipalities, and so on. Companies are organised into departments, and governments into ministries.

This approach is useful and necessary - up to a point. But it is often not adequate for addressing wicked problems. Some of the biggest challenges that governments face today involve wicked problems such as terrorism, climate change and population.

No single government agency is really equipped to deal with such wicked problems on its own. Because wicked problems are inherently complex in their scale of uncertainty and disagreement, they are best tackled by interdisciplinary approaches, drawing on different knowledge systems and experiences, and sharing information drawn from large parts, if not the whole, of the government system.

Whole-of-government v organisational boundaries

BREAKING down organisational silos is key to tackling the wicked problems of complexity. In Singapore, this effort to bridge internal boundaries is called the whole-of-government approach.

However, the whole-of-government approach has to overcome the deeply-ingrained bureaucratic instinct to operate within silos, rather than to collaborate horizontally across organisational boundaries. This is a big hurdle, because it requires a fundamental change of culture into one in which officers consider the spillover effects of what they do and their impact on the policies and plans of other agencies.

Because it is so central to good governance, the whole-of-government approach is a priority of the leadership in the Singapore Public Service. Today, there are inter-agency platforms that have been established to share information among ministries, statutory boards and other agencies, in order to take in different ideas and insights, so that wicked problems like health care and ageing can be viewed in their manifold dimensions. Coordinating bodies have been set up to deal with cross-cutting strategic issues, like the National Security Coordination Secretariat, the National Climate Change Secretariat and the National Population and Talent Division.

The logic of breaking down silos extends beyond government into working with citizens to understand and address wicked problems. For example, the Urban Redevelopment Authority recently held an exhibition of its 2013 Draft Master Plan to gather feedback from the public in order to fine-tune plans for Singapore's urban development. The exhibition attracted about 2,000 visitors daily and was organised with a website and iPads to obtain public feedback.

Another example is Our Singapore Conversation, a year-long process involving more than 600 dialogue sessions and nearly 50,000 participants. This process surfaced fresh insights for government - and for citizens - such as the desire for broader definitions of success or greater assurance about health care and retirement, that would otherwise have been much more difficult to obtain. This could even be thought of as a whole-of-nation approach, rather than just a whole-of-government approach.

The design approach

THE "design approach" is another way of dealing with complexity and wicked problems. It involves considering the impact of policies on the individual. This is in contrast to the usual approach of looking at the impact in its totality.

The Singapore Government is now experimenting with the design approach which puts its planners and policymakers into the shoes of the individual in order to gain better insights into the impact of policies and plans. The design approach, in which we think from the view of end-users, whether it is someone with disabilities or a mother with triplets, will help the Government design better policies and improve their delivery to the customer.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design is the first tertiary institution, certainly in Singapore, and probably anywhere in the world, to systematically teach its students the interdisciplinary design approach to problem-solving. It is a brave and bold experiment. Hopefully graduates of the university will begin to fill the ranks of government, and help strengthen its ability in the design approach.

The evolution of thinking within the Singapore Government - notably the push for a whole-of-government approach, collaboration with citizens and design thinking - parallels the organisational need for speed, flexibility, integration and innovation which are emerging as the new drivers of success.

Institutionalising these success factors converges with the need to tackle the growing number of wicked problems that arise out of complexity. Both require a loosening of boundaries between the levels of the hierarchy, across silos that separate functions and people. This will help to address the pressing challenges of wicked problems arising out of complexity that the nation, government and society in Singapore face today.

The writer was head of the Civil Service, and is now senior adviser to the Centre for Strategic Futures, set up by the Public Service Division to develop public sector capabilities for future strategic challenges.