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Disability as a wicked policy problem

by Hilary Stace

Minister of Finance, Bill English, has hinted that there will be a voucher system for disability support in the Budget on 21 May. This will be the Government’s latest attempt to fix disability policy. However, as various posts on this Access blog have detailed, the track record of governments in providing equitable and appropriate disability services and support is not good.

This is because disability is an example of ‘wicked’ policy, a problem which is not bad, merely resistant to simple solution. This concept has been around since the 1970s but in 2007 the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) published a simple analysis of wicked problems to help understand problems such as climate change and family violence. In this post I use autism as an example of wicked policy, but much of it applies to disability generally. The quotes in the following are from the APSC 2007 report.

According to the APSC, ‘wicked’ problems:

  • Are difficult to clearly define
  • Have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • When tackled can result in unforeseen consequences
  • Are often not stable
  • Usually have no clear solution
  • Are socially complex
  • Rarely fit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • Involve changing behaviours
  • Can be characterised by chronic policy failure.

I will go through these one by one providing examples from autism.

Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define

‘Different stakeholders have different versions of what the problem is. Often, each version of the policy problem has an element of truth’.

Autism itself largely defies definition. In most cases it is unable to be confirmed by biomedical testing. There are various, often contradictory, diagnostic tools. The spectrum is growing wider as diagnostic descriptions evolve. There is disagreement about what has caused the increase in diagnoses over the last few decades: environmental factors, better knowledge or social construction of a condition? Where, how and why might interventions or support be required? Whose role is it to provide them?

Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal

‘There are also often internally conflicting goals or objectives within the broader wicked problem.’

This is another way of saying they are very complex, and there is no linear path from a single cause of a problem to one logical solution. With autism we also have the combined problems of insufficient data and diagnostic capacity, as well as an apparent increase in numbers of people with the condition, but a service delivery system that is conflicted between treating people as holistic beings, and tightly capped budgets. No two autistic people are the same and problems vary between individuals and over time.

Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences

An attempt to address wicked problems leading to unforeseen consequences is illustrated by the 1990s educational policy of Special Education 2000. This policy was intended to encourage the mainstreaming – integration of children with special educational needs including autism – into regular schools and out of the units and special schools in which many were receiving their education. SE2000 was in the spirit of Section 8 of the 1989 Education Act which provided the right for every child to attend their local school. SE2000 anticipated that every local school would accommodate all the local children in all their diversity, and was also intended to address regional inequities.

However, the decision to provide targeted funding for only 1% of students through the Ongoing Resourcing or ORS Scheme, proved highly inadequate. In implementing the policy, insufficient classroom support was provided for many mainstreamed children and their teachers. SE 2000 was eventually challenged by political and legal action. The Government is now into its 4th major review of special education since then, with little indication that the problems of autism and special education are being solved.

Wicked problems are often not stable

‘Policy makers have to focus on a moving target.’

Autism knowledge and the political and economic backdrop are constantly changing, so the policy solutions suggested in one context may be too expensive or outdated when the time comes for implementation. As children with autism grow into autistic adults the way autism manifests can change, as do support needs. Some children who appear highly autistic as pre-schoolers may have only minor impairment as adults. However, mental health issues may have developed for them. Employment rather than educational support is what they now require. Definitions change with each new edition of the DSM.

Wicked problems usually have no clear solution

There is no shared agreement in the autism sector on what an endpoint would look like and ideas in the literature and on websites range from the elimination of autism to a society led by autistic people. Dana Lee Baker (2011) from Washington State University notes that the ‘taxonomy of agendas’ shaping policy: 'cause, care, cure and celebration' clash over autism policy and priorities.

Wicked problems are socially complex

‘It is a key conclusion of the literature around wicked problems that the social complexity of wicked problems, rather than their technical complexity, overwhelms most problem-solving and project management approaches.’

Policy is about people and relationships. Problems are not easy to break down into simple cause and effect, but may involve changing and improving a variety of relationships, environments, attitudes and behaviours. There are some public servants – ‘vision-holders’ as they have been called ‒ who do try to engage a variety of stakeholders, for example in autism advisory groups, but they are rare. Our public service and agency contracting systems do not encourage such relationship building. Time and funding constraints act against it.

US systems and wicked policy theorist, Jeffery Conklin (2005) talks about ‘collective intelligence’ which is a ‘natural enabler of collaboration’ but is challenged by the ‘forces of fragmentation’ which doom projects. Fragmentation can happen when groups have to compete against each other for funding, or when communication is poor. These are both features of the New Zealand autism community which has numerous different autism-related organisations. 

Wicked problems rarely fit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation

Several government departments, ministries and agencies have disability (including autism) responsibilities including Health, Education, Social Development, ACC, Justice, Housing, MoBIE. Numerous community organisations hold autism-related contracts. But they don’t seem to talk to each other. Navigating between them can be endlessly frustrating for disabled people and families.

Wicked problems involve changing behaviours

‘Innovative personalised approaches are likely to be necessary to motivate individuals to actively cooperate in achieving sustained behavioural change.’

An autistic child’s behaviours can often be mistaken for naughtiness, and an individual child’s abilities can range high and low across IQ scales and educational assessment. To address the needs of each student with autism, schools have to change their attitudes, even altering their physical environment to provide less sensory stimulation. Teachers have to learn new techniques. Agencies providing autism support need to work across boundaries to better coordinate services. People working in autism services and support may need to review their own attitudes, ethics and behaviours around both collaboration and respecting the lived expertise of autistic people (and their families).

Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure

Disability generally has had decades of policy attention in New Zealand, yet disabled people still feature highly in the statistics of disadvantage such as health, education, employment and income. Autism has had almost two decades of specific policy focus since a mother killed her autistic daughter. Yet social media forums reveal continuing unmet need around autism, including coordination pathways, respite, behaviour, education and employment support, independent living, and other services.

Conklin paraphrases Horst Rittel, one of the founders of this way of looking at problems:

  • You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule (no definitive ‘the problem’, no ‘the solution’)
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong. They are simply ‘better,’ ‘worse’, good enough’ or ‘not good enough’
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’ (very attempt has unintended consequences)
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions ( not either, or but about being creative and exercising good judgement)

Considering this analysis of wicked problems what can be done about it regarding autism?

We could start by rethinking notions of expertise. Who are the experts? I suggest this hierarchy:

  • People with autism
  • Family/whānau members/carers
  • Professionals/clinicians/ teachers/teacher aides/carer (and the closer to the autistic child the less the status and pay)
  • NGOs and community groups
  • Public servants/academics
  • Politicians

People with autism need to be at the top of the hierarchy so that their lived experience is respected. Bringing them and their families into the process is a start, but not in a token way.

We need to build ‘right’ relationships between all those with an interest in autism policy. It needs to be done with the resources of the State and by its agents. A politician tossing out a voucher on the off chance there is an appropriate local service, is not the way.

Wicked problems are different from linear problems that fit a model of problem, analysis, solution. They are messy, cyclic, all over the place, and you need to grasp at solutions to even begin to understand what the problem is. But what I like about wickedness is that it gives you the opportunity to take risks, to be innovative and build relationships with groups who hold the wisdom but haven’t been asked before. It might not work smoothly, and there might be conflict, but there might also be good results. As Conklin says ‘include all the stakeholders, and let the group explore the problem and solution spaces to get broadest and deepest ownership’.

Autism is just one aspect of disability policy that could be considered wicked. Look at all the disability expertise and wisdom in the posts and comments on this Access blog. Yet how many of us or our disabled friends are asked to advise on government policy? I suspect not many and not often. So without including this expertise and without an understanding of the wickedness of disability policy any new policies are bound to fail, just like the Funded Family Care policy of two Budgets ago.

Bill English, are you listening?

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