Address ‘wicked problems,’ don’t see ‘wicked people’

Participants at the Civic Life Summit, sponsored by Baylor University's Public Deliberation Initiative, learned techniques to engage groups in constructive deliberation. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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WACO—Communities can overcome challenges and bridge divisions when they focus on addressing “wicked problems” instead of seeing individuals with different viewpoints as “wicked people,” a Colorado-based expert in communications studies and deliberative democracy told the Civic Life Summit at Baylor University.

“We have to change the conversation,” Martin Carcasson, founding director of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University, told the conference, convened by Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative. “We need to change the game, not just play a bad game better.”

Tame problem vs. wicked problems

Carcasson drew on the distinction between “tame problems” and “wicked problems,” as professors Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber formulated them more than 40 years ago. “Tame problems” are technical in nature and can be solved by experts using scientific means, he explained.

“Wicked problems inherently involve competing underlying values, paradoxes and tradeoffs that cannot be resolved by science,” he said. “Wicked problems are systemic and interconnected.”

Because wicked problems demand adaptive change instead of technical fixes, they require public involvement in the deliberative process, he insisted.

“Wicked problems require creativity, innovation and imagination,” he said.

Instead of adopting an adversarial approach to public communication about problems or reliance on experts to solve problems that defy technical solutions, Carcasson advocated deliberative democracy.

“Good data is undermined in a polarized environment,” he said. “An overly adversarial process plays into the flaws of human nature.”

Deliberative engagement provides a helpful process

Rather than seeing every problem as a struggle between good versus evil, Carcasson encouraged his audience to consider a process that recognizes citizens often hold competing good values.

Martin Carcasson 125Martin CarcassonDeliberative engagement provides a process that encourages the development of mutual understanding, builds trust and respect, facilitates the refinement of opinions and creates the potential for creative collaboration, he insisted.

Using a facilitator to guide discussions, “citizens come together and consider relevant facts and values from multiple points of view,” he explained.

Deliberative engagement offers tools to encourage people to listen, think critically about options, recognize underlying tensions, consider consequences and agree upon collaborative action, he said.

“We can overcome our bad tendencies and build better habits, particularly at the local level,” he insisted.

Make tough choices together

In a breakout session on public deliberation, John Ritter and Erin Payseur emphasized the importance of moving beyond “either/or” choices and adopting a process that encourages discovery of common ground.

PDI 250“Deliberation is making tough choices together,” said Ritter, assistant director of spiritual formation at Baylor

The process requires participants to possess both convictions and humility, he emphasized. Convictions without humility lead to fanaticism, while humility without conviction creates indecision and the inability to arrive at a solution, he said.

Payseur, associate director of civic learning initiatives at Baylor, described the importance of a guide to “name and frame” the conversation, help participants wrestle with issues and move forward to positive actions.

Public deliberation offers participants an opportunity to put names and faces to different perspectives, Ritter and Payseur stressed.

Recognize ‘wonderful opportunities’ for change

In a breakout session on deliberative work and church life, Gaynor Yancey affirmed the process of deliberation but took issue with the language of “wicked problems.”

“If we see a problem as wicked, we’re probably not doing our best work there,” said Yancey, director of Baylor’s Center for Family and Community Ministries.

Instead, churches should see so-called “wicked problems” as “wonderful opportunities” for meaningful change by building on strengths, she insisted.

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