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Wicked priorities

May 30, 2012 by
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized 

In my last post I used a footballing metaphor to suggest that the lifestyles of well-off people in the UK, particularly those based in the South East of England, put them in the Premiership of developed economy citizens while the poor have fallen to the level of the Championship. Given there are twenty teams in the top football division, there was gloomy confirmation in the statistics released yesterday by UNICEF that UK children are now 21st of  34 in a league table measuring child poverty levels (where the top country has the lowest levels).

There is a link between child poverty and my main current preoccupation, namely strengthening the 21st century enlightenment thesis to which I want return to in my 2012 chief executive’s annual lecture.

Writing with the equally esteemed Professor George Jones, the great local government academic Professor John Stewart used the phrase ‘wicked issues’ to describe problems – such as tackling poverty or promoting sustainability – which were not amendable to conventional bureaucratic public sector responses:

‘A wicked issue cannot be confined to a particular department. Many departments have contributions to make….This issue has to be dealt with across organisations and authorities, and at many levels…..Wicked issues present government and society with problems full of uncertainty’

Generally, policy makers and public sector managers have seen the response to wicked issues in better ‘joining up’ of organisations, functions and budgets. This is an important and a constant struggle, but it tends still to imply that the answer to these problems lies exclusively in action by government. But in a post last week I suggested some of our biggest challenges combine these policy and delivery challenges with collective action problems (getting individuals to align their behaviour with desired outcomes) and deeper issues of power, social structure and values. In this sense the implications of wickedness go much wider than problems of public sector silos.

Two different examples illustrate the point. The Big Society ideal is clearly one which involves voluntary changes in individual behaviour, reform and innovation in policy and service delivery, and shifts in power and social meaning; something which the idea’s architects seemed initially to recognise. The problem has been the half-hearted and unbalanced way the mission has progressed. Most of Whitehall either didn’t understand or care about the principles of the Big Society and those ministers who did were happy to talk about a shift in power away from central Government but not about trickier political issues like how realistically to grow and support capacity in deprived communities.

Moreover, the communication of the Big Society both underestimated how much in this vein was going on already and the length of time it would take to achieve the shift in norms, expectations and capacities to make the best of current practice ubiquitous (on the last point see this report from the RSA Social Brain team).

Child poverty under Labour offers a contrasting story. Here the problem was not a lack of commitment in Government – indeed there was pretty good progress – but the failure to make the abolition of child poverty an objective for wider society so that citizens as a whole understood this transformational goal and committed to what it might involve for them.

One consequence and symbol of that failure is that the possibility child poverty rates are set to increase is presented as a matter of Government policy rather than a problem for society or for our very idea of the kind of country we want to be.

Wicked problems require concerted and determined responses articulating political leadership, long term policy, institutional innovation, intellectual and cultural discourse, and the mobilisation of civil society by civil society. Unlike the crowded agenda of Government, it is probably only possible to pursue change of such a scale on a very limited number of issues at any one time.

If a Prime Minister were to say that he/she wanted to be judged on only three issues and over a decade’s time frame, for the sake of argument, abolishing child poverty, providing universal high quality care to older citizens and matching American levels of entrepreneurialism, there would, of course, be an outcry as the advocates of other priorities made their case. But while bureaucracies can always sign up to additional priorities (safe in the knowledge that some will soon go by the board) solving wicked issues requires change on a social scale and this means working work with the vital but constrained capacity of people to change their attitudes and behaviours.



  • Sam Earle

    Given that the wicked issues are those whose solutions require concerted or integrated approaches, I wonder if actually it is not a question of only being able to tackle very few at a time, as surely the issues are not abstract, their effects not isolated phenomena, but many social and environmental issues are heavily inter-related. For example, public transport improvement (increased infrastructure, affordable passage), would result in, inter alia, more jobs, reduced emissions, less traffic – so less time wasted, greater productivity, fewer road accidents, decreased respiratory illnesses in urban areas, and thus alleviated health and emergency services etc etc etc…
    In short, then, integrated approaches must apply not just to the agents of the change, but also its objects.

  • Carl Allen

    A combination of wicked issues does indeed require a mobilisation of resources.

    But such a mobilisation requires either voluntary giving on a sustained basis or appropriation.

    Matthew, are we in an emergency that requires such?

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks Sam and Carl. Interesting questions/points. I’m returning to the theme today or tomorrow.

  • Matthew Kalman Mezey


    Thomas Jordan’s research is beginning to identify a human capability that is often missing from societal change agents who are dealing with ‘wicked issues’ (and perhaps leads to failed solutions?).

    He is looking at the ‘meaning-making structures’ of societal change agents, and finds that a high level of ‘complexity awareness’ is key when it comes to these really wicked issues. In other words, ‘traditional entrepreneurial personality traits’ are not enough:

    “In less complex endeavours, traditional entrepreneurial personality traits may carry a long way: strong achievement motivation, perseverance, inventiveness, action orientation, a tendency to quickly rebound from dejection states in the face of failed efforts and try new ideas. However, when the societal change initiatives involve influencing how other actors and societal institutions handle wicked issues, the difficulty of the task may require something more than the conventional entrepreneurial spirit.”

    Read his article here (warning: it’s quite dense!):,%20Skillful%20Engagement%20Wicked%20Issues,%20Vol.%207,%20No.%202.pdf

    I certainly plan to keep an eye on his three-year research project (in Sweden) about the transformations of meaning-making among societal change agents – as it could yield some key insights for the RSA, I feel.

    I recently started a group on the RSA ning to discuss these issues – Human Capability and Societal Transformation:

    Matthew M

    Matthew Kalman Mezey
    (Online Community Manager)

    Tel 020 7451 6825
    A live dashboard webpage showing RSA online activity is here: (online community)