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To Tackle Society’s ‘Wicked Problems,’ Flip the Orthodoxies

Traditional approaches to the kinds of complex issues governments face stymie creative work. Houston has been making significant progress on reducing homelessness with a process of bridge building among stakeholders.

RoseMary’s Place apartments
A rendering of RoseMary’s Place apartments, now under construction in Midtown Houston. It will provide 149 units and services for homeless and other undeserved individuals. Developed by the NHP Foundation, the project is financially supported by Hurricane Harvey recovery funds provided by the city of Houston and Harris County. (NHP Foundation)
Communities across the country share a backbreaking crisis: how to deal with the large and growing problem of homelessness. In just two years, from 2020 to 2022, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness nationwide increased by 16 percent.

In Houston, however, a collaboration among more than 100 public and private organizations has reduced homelessness by 62 percent since 2011—and 17 percent from 2022 to 2023. What’s the secret sauce? Houston flipped the existing orthodoxy on its head.

We take most orthodoxies about how to manage government for granted, but we’ve proven to ourselves that they just don’t work well anymore. What often stands in the way is simply a “failure of imagination,” one of the big findings of the 9/11 Commission. And what we need is applying that insight to how we manage governments.

As modern economies grow more complex and interconnected, societies butt up against “wicked problems” like the climate crisis or economic inequality — multistakeholder problems whose solutions require multiple players who have to negotiate tangled incentives and escape the “I’m in charge” mentality that too often stymies creative work.

The answer to these wicked problems — and government’s day-to-day work, almost by definition — can't be traditional approaches. To solve them, there are five orthodoxies that need to be flipped on their heads:

1. Hierarchy is replaced by partnerships: Traditionally, most interactions between government and the private sector have had clean boundaries, through regulation and contracting. Today, this traditional model often is no longer true. Instead, the relationship is often a partnership, and it relies on bridge builders, working across the boundaries, to create new standards, shared financing and innovative procurement strategies. The government-industry partnerships to respond to the pandemic, the intelligence community's investment in tech startups, and the sandbox trials of new military technology all represent ways that traditional hierarchy was flipped into a horizontal partnership.

Houston’s strategy for reducing homelessness broke down silos and built on a large coalition of organizations, public and nonprofit. Instead of having one agency focus on the problem, the strategy relied on identifying the contributions that the 100-plus organizations could make and then weaving them together.

2. Vertical accountability systems become horizontal, mission-based systems: The typical government organization chart makes a nice pyramid, with orders and audits flowing down from the top and information about operations flowing back up. But this type of vertical accountability system encourages siloed initiatives. That keeps things simple but often blocks solutions that require multiple organizations to share in the work. The more we move into problems that stretch across boundaries, the more accountability requires collaborative effort.

One of the biggest challenges that the effort to reduce homelessness faces is simply getting everyone on the same page. Houston tackled that problem by focusing on mission and reinforcing the role that each of the organizational players had in accomplishing that mission.

3. Mistrusted systems become a foundation of trust: Mistrust in government is its own important, wicked problem, all around the world. Mistrust is practically a self-propelling industry, not only in conventional media but especially with social media. This mistrust is dangerous because it undermines initiatives that require the people’s cooperation. In the 2020 census, for example, the Census Bureau faced persistent rumors that it was sharing citizenship data with law enforcement agencies to catch undocumented workers. The bureau countered this false meme by battling mistrust street by street. Its employees reached out to church leaders, community organizations and ultimately to individuals to fight back against misinformation.

Houston built trust in its system by sweeping away the broad debates about government and focusing instead on what we call “retail trust” — making people’s day-to-day interactions with government an effort to find solutions to the problems they shared. Part of Houston’s success in reducing homelessness came in weaving the different players together. But a big part also came in making the system super customer-focused, with a keen eye to serving the needs of those who needed to be served.

4. Data hoarding becomes an information bridge: Back in the days of low interest rates, when tech startups with no income could use their massive troves of user data to convince investors to fund their operations, data became a valuable and jealously hoarded asset. Too often, however, hackers had an easier time accessing the data than an organization’s partners.

Data is powerful. Analytical tools can sort data for valuable insights, as chatbots and other generative AI programs illustrate. Real-time dashboards can help users see what's working and coordinate who should take responsibility for remaining tasks. It’s more a language than a measure, but too often creating data systems in local governments is building a Tower of Babel.

Houston’s coalition used its management information system as both a shared language of communication and as a bridge among the organizations. It tracked individuals as they moved through the system, and it tracked the effectiveness of individual organizations in helping people make those steps. This matrix provided the structure on which the coalition depended.

5. Siloed budgeting becomes fuel for collaboration: The vertical silos in which many government programs operate are often the product of narrowly focused funding and rules that come along with the money. Lining up the flow of funds to match the emerging realities of collaborative governance — an “ecosystems approach” — can set innovation loose, multiplying the effect of each dollar spent.

In many communities, there is a tug of war among local agencies for federal cash. In Houston, the money tracked with the people and flowed through the system in ways designed to improve the system’s results. In other words, money followed mission.

All of these steps have two things in common: They flip the conventional orthodoxies within which many government programs have historically worked, and they rely on bridge builders to create the links among the players seeking to accomplish shared goals. That’s the key to solving government’s wicked problems and, in fact, to making all of government serve the public more effectively.

And there’s a third conclusion these steps suggest: This bridge building is a strategy that all governments can use, if they’re willing to turn their traditional systems on their heads.

William D. Eggers and Donald F. Kettl are the authors of the new book Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems, from which this is adapted.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Executive director of the Deloitte Center for Government Insights.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of <i><a href=";qid=&amp;sr=">Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems</a>.</i>
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