Our Sector: Hear the drummer get wicked

At this time of the year lots of staff in the student movement are thinking about how they might support their officers in delivering their manifestos. Jim Dickinson has taken a keen interest in the content of student officer manifestos over the years, and as well as trying to get a handle on issues like trends, tone etc he’s also been thinking about the nature of the problems or proposed solutions that the myriad of bullet points represent.

Policy theory would suggest three types of problem:

  • Critical problems (usually labelled as crises) demand an immediate reaction from leaders. There is usually high opportunity or threat. They tend to require rapid (although thoughtful and analytical) responses; a level of discipline in handling; and tight coordination. Critical problems require commanders.
  • Tame problems are those which may be complicated but which are contained and easily solved using discreet interventions; entail only a limited degree of uncertainty and can be addressed by rolling similar solutions (albeit with sensitivity to context) that were used to address a problem of this type previously. Tame problems are managed.
  • Wicked problems are those which are complex, not just complicated. There is a lack of agreement about precisely what the problem is. They come about as a result of a number of interrelated drivers, each of which cannot be tackled without having a knock-on impact on the other drivers. Wicked problems are coordinated.

The most obvious example of a national critical problem would be the 2010 fees issue, but the Education Act 1994 is another good example. At a local level there might be a proposed closure of a campus or major cut to a service- or a good old fashioned local media scandal (take any variety of culture wars/freedom of speech). Critical problems are often complicated but can be simplified by simple, single goals where there is a chance to win/lose and where most a) agree on the goal and or b) view it as their “historic” role to pursue it.

The bulk of SU work is tame insofar as it consists of managed programmes of work with outcomes. For example- the need to annually train course reps falls easily into this category, or to run a facility or service or activity programme. In the tame space elected officers act as ministers for work programmes and may want elements or emphasis to change. The other type of tame goal is the simple problem/solution- more microwaves on campus, a better vegan food range etc.

Wicked problems are much more amorphous- as indicated there tends to be disagreement about the nature, scope and scale of a problem; it is much more likely to be different in each SU/institution; there are a range of responses that an SU might deploy. The role of an SU in these cases is to do detailed policy/research work; convene taskforces; develop hypotheses; run experiments; and report on efforts/experimentation. They are also much more likely to affect different groups of students in different ways and provoke debate- often existential. The aim here is to get lots of different, convergent activity and thinking going and share it.

In any given year issues can shift. The issue of student finance is traditionally a wicked one (and there is a great description of it as a “wicked problem” in NUS’ 2012 “Pound in your pocket” report). At the other end of the spectrum critical problems come and go; and in some years tame or wicked problems can be manufactured into critical problems through false urgency (an incoming CEO that can see that the SU is eighteen months away from bankruptcy will likely do their best to work a problem up into a critical state).

Delivering Manifestos

If I look at the state of manifesto “delivery” across the student movement and particularly within SUs, I think it’s fair to say that we are comfortable in the tame space; variously able to cope in the critical space and generally quite poor in the wicked space. Given the dominant developmental “currency” in the student movement is the management qualification, it’s no surprise that we like tame problems with certainty of outcomes and solid planning. Boards like tame problems, and they fit our structures and academic years. And unions look to NUS and other SUs for tame solutions- best practice, model planning documents, sample policies- tried and tested solutions to well understood problems.

There are different levels of capacity over critical problems. Any SU with a lively and well funded student newspaper is likely to have formal or informal capacity that is able to weather a media storm. This capacity, which is about rapid response and tactical campaigning when windows of influence are short then comes in handy over unexpected opportunities and threats that can arise. Unions without that capacity might look to NUS and other unions for help when a critical problem comes along- media storms, campus closures, student occupations, and internal scandals all fit the bill.

When it comes to wicked problems, arguably we have a weakness as a student movement. Remember wicked problems are old. People often think the solution is easier than it is. There’s no criteria for when the problem is fixed, success or failure judgments are subjective, there is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem, and every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

If I look through manifestos I see lots of wicked problems. Sexual harassment and assault on campus was for many years a good example. “SU Engagement” is another. Mental Health on campus is a classic. Value for Money/Student Costs is there too. In some cases- just like in the “real” political world, manifestos and officer support will shift a wicked problem into the tame space- pretending that a single intervention, poster, project or week will somehow fix an issue. Politicians (including student ones) and their staff are comfortable here because you can be seen to be delivering and making progress.

In other cases- just like in the “real” political world- manifestos, officer support and the events of an academic year will shift a wicked problem into the critical space. In this case decisive, swift action to tackle an issue is expected of political leaders and the critical nature of the issue can mean a doing away of having to secure consensus or run pilots. Responses to failure are often here- a student suicide, or a building fire, or a clutch of student representative resignations are ripe for the conversion.

Pretending they’re not wicked

So policymakers, politicians and support staff often treat Wicked problems as though they were Tame or Critical. But we know from both the “real world” (see obesity, mental health, anti-social behaviour as good examples) that wicked problems are not caused by a single factor but rather a complex web of drivers; social, economic and environmental. And attempting to solve them with a single, discreet intervention is misguided and likely to be counterproductive.

Global warming and the rise of biofuels is a classic case of mistakenly treating a Wicked problem with a Tame solution that compounds the original challenge. When Global Warming first emerged as a problem some of the responses concentrated on solving the problem through science (a Tame response), manifest in the development of biofuels. But we now know that the first generation of biofuels appear to have denuded the world of significant food resources- so that what looked like a solution actually became another problem. This is typical of what happens when we try to solve Wicked Problems: other problems emerge to compound the original problem.

Knife crime is another good example. Politicians are more likely to be praised for introducing new stop-and-search powers than for mobilising the community to engage with the issue in their neighbourhoods. Because we demand a decisive response from our leaders, many learn to “seek out” (or reframe situations as) crises.

A cursory glance at any set of elected student officer manifestos reveals a list of wicked problems. Sometimes they are framed as tame or critical but we know they’re wicked. This is not surprising- the world, Universities and the student experience is much more complex than it was even a decade ago. But it does mean that our support for officers in achieving their goals needs to match the diversity and complexity of the problems.

Cultural Understandings

Here’s a good example. An “elegant” solution to a tame problem usually involves a solution that focuses on the use of one particular cultural understanding. They are often simple, practical and with a clear timeframe, and are therefore useful for tackling Tame problems where the response needed is fairly obvious to all concerned. In terms of these cultural understandings:

  • Hierachists tackle problems by implementing stringent rules and punishments;
  • Egalitarians cultivate norms and community values; and
  • Individualists design incentives and support structures.

In the case of sexual harassment on campus:

  • Hierachists think about SU and University behavioural codes
  • Egalitarians want to make sure we influence social norms (“It’s Never OK/Consent education”)
  • Individualists design incentives and support structures (Leaflet on what to do if a “victim”)

The problem is that using one frame rarely works:

  • Individualists can solve the problem of decreasing carbon emissions from cars (a Tame problem open to a scientific solution), but they cannot solve Global Warming (a Wicked problem)
  • Egalitarians can help ex-offenders back into the community (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve crime (a Wicked problem)
  • Hierachists can improve rule enforcement for the fraudulent abuse of social services (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve poverty (a Wicked problem)

In other words, not everyone responds well to punitive hierarchical measures, not everyone is influenced by social norming and nor is everyone affected equally by the incentives and support offered by individualists. It is a mixture of approaches- characterised by asking the right questions, developing deeper understanding, developing multiple hypotheses and testing them in different ways that can make progress.

This then leads us to consider different types of leadership behaviour that might be needed by student officers. Critical problems need very traditional (and often very “male”) leadership skills- Commanding, Directing, Insisting, Urgency, Threat etc. Tame problems need other types of skills- Managing, Planning, Evaluating, Task Allocation that have often been considered the domain of managers/staff.

But wicked problems need other types of behaviour- Questioning, convening & experimenting, involving and storytelling:

  • Leadership over wicked problems means asking multiple questions, commissioning discovery, developing lines of enquiry about a problem and discovering things (“nursing students have a different view on this to others”).
  • It involves suggesting hypotheses about things that might work, and then running & evaluating experiments to see if the hypotheses was true (“did the peer support training work?”).
  • It involves identifying stakeholders (both within the student body and externally) and helping student leaders to engage people in the process.
  • It involves student leaders being able to secure emotional commitment keep people motivated when the process is clumsy, long, experimental and complex- through story telling and political narrative.
  • And it involves sharp thinking, chunking problems up and down (Bricks? Walls? Cathedrals? Religion?) and knowing when to shift a problem into the tame or critical space (for example- nationally, student finance was last year a wicked problem- ie NUS Poverty Commission- but is now critical- ie Augar Review)


There is also a democratic consideration to these issues. Since the introduction of Trustee Boards there have been all sorts of changes, innovations and reforms to policy making. Some SUs have abandoned policy making altogether; some have clung to their councils (or split them into multiple councils) retaining “notes believes resolves” and some (on prompting from UnionCloud and MSL) have gone for glorified suggestion and ideas boxes with added upvoting. And then alongside many unions have employed policy and research staff whose outputs, proposals and recommendations often don’t manifest inside the aforementioned structures.

When a student is given an essay assignment it involves lots of work- research, drafting, reading, going to talk to academics, thinking etc. And when it’s marked that involves work too- reading, looking at rubric, moderating etc. One of the curious features of students’ union democratic reform is that it has tended to focus on deepening or broadening participation in the marking “bit” of policy making but in almost all systems the development of ideas, proposals, motions or policies remains a solitary effort. Why aren’t we collectivising the formative bit of complex policy making rather than obsessing over the summative/marking bit?

And we also know that the systems we have often don’t fit. A good simple idea about an SU service on an ideas platform probably ought to just be implemented without hassle or upvoting. A practical concern probably doesn’t need a notes, believes resolves approach. And a complex problem sometimes doesn’t fit the referendum model. See Brexit.


But one of the most curious aspects of the state of SU democratic culture is our failure to properly experiment with deliberative democracy. In the graph above we can see representative (councils), direct (referenda) and participatory (clubs and societies) in use in SUs but across the world interesting and meaningful experiments in deliberative democracy are starting to take hold. And given the size and diversity of most of our student populations and the complexity (wickedness) of the problems our officers are trying to solve, we probably need to try some of the approaches out.

Deliberative approaches are usually characterised as follows:

  • Representative- in the sense that they involve a representative cross-section (or mini-public) of the community, usually selected at random;
  • Deliberative- allowing for extended consideration of a key question;
  • Influential- the presumption that decision-makers will take direction from the outcomes of the deliberation;
  • Broad- A focus is put on the fundamental idea of democracy with an emphasis on listening, participation and cooperation and the opportunity to consider, respectfully, a range of views and ideas rather than merely voting;
  • Diverse- The random selection of participants gives access to quiet voices and to people who may not otherwise have had any engagement;
  • Sustainable- It can lead to better, more sustainable decisions by providing people the time and opportunity to take a ‘deep dive’ into difficult issues;
  • Trust- People are more likely to trust the outcomes of a process which is seen to be representative and informed by ordinary people, ‘just like me’ rather than representatives (who tend to be mistrusted because they are no longer ‘just like me’).
  • It is the use of specific and robust methods to inform representative groups of ordinary citizens so that these citizens, having heard every side of an argument and having had a chance to deliberate, can reach a view which – like a jury in a criminal trial – can stand for the conclusions which would have been reached by any representative group going through the same process.

A quick google search provides lots of examples and case studies and Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA lecture is a good primer on the principles, background and case for the approach. They’ve also launched a call for organisations and individuals prepared to trial deliberative democracy approaches that SU’s ought to consider applying to. And charities like involve have help, support and ideas we can use.

Ultimately three things strike me:

  • Many student officer manifesto points are old, wicked and require sophisticated staff support from us;
  • We want SU policy to work and have a lasting and proper impact on students;
  • If we really believe that we are the engine room for democratic and political participation (and being student led) we should be at the forefront of innovation in that space.
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