Judith Innes visiting the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne

How can government solve a problem like water management?

It can’t. Or at least not on its own. That is the uncompromising message recently delivered by Judith Innes during her lecture at the University of Melbourne.

You may or may not know what a wicked problem is, but the chances are you encounter them every day. In situations when interests, stakeholders and bodies of knowledge are all competing, an answer to one problem opens up a problem elsewhere. Scaled up, classic wicked problems include climate change, water management, housing affordability, traffic congestion, homelessness and indigenous disadvantage.

According to Professor Judith Innes from the University of California, Berkeley, government is woefully unprepared and unable to respond to the big wicked problems of our time. Instead, we all need to think a lot more seriously about the value of collaboration and how we deploy knowledge and information when dealing with wicked problems. As she argues, wicked problems can be much better solved when diverse participants, with interdependent interests, engage in authentic face-to-face dialogue.

Innes’ frustration with conventional government approaches to wicked problems originates from her own experience over many years of professional work in city and regional planning, watching governments appear to ignore good, well-prepared research, instead making apparently irrational policy decisions. Innes’ explanation for this phenomenon is witheringly prosaic. ‘Politicians do things for political reasons. Duh.’

As Professor Emerita of City and Regional Planning, and one of the most cited scholars in the field of urban planning, Innes has built her career on observing how people use information, and what choices are made when deciding what information to listen to, and what information to ignore.

“The answer is not more knowledge. The answer is more inclusive knowledge creation.” – Judith Innes

‘As a young person in Boston, my father was a state senator and he was very interested in planning and urban issues. I watched them make terrible, terrible mistakes. Decisions that I knew were awful. When I went to work in Congress, I realised that, while all sorts of information is provided to Congress, a Congressman would take this information and call his buddies and ask, “How are you going to vote on this?”. Then his actions would be driven by what his buddy said, and nothing to do with what our advice was. So I became interested in how people actually decide things. The great thing about being able to watch collaboration and consensus-building, is to see how people come around to a different way of thinking, and what made a difference.’

According to Innes, collaboration and joint creation of knowledge is the key. The answer is not more knowledge. The answer is more inclusive knowledge creation. ‘People need to have dialogue around the data in order to agree on it. Dialogue is essential to even think data is worth anything, much less worth using. In fact, the idea of “information use” is kind of irrelevant, because by the time it is really influential, you don’t even notice the information. The information is embedded in your daily activity.’

After years involved in the field of collaborative planning, Innes is a strong advocate for an expanded role for civil society, NGOs, public agencies, private entities and other stakeholders in decision making. These groups are often flexible, inclusive and better informed and therefore more suited than bureaucracies to solving modern problems. These coalitions, or partnerships, can help to fill what Innes refers to as the ‘institutional void’ created by increasingly wicked and complex problems, alongside the diminished ability of government institutions to address public problems.

Such collaborations, however, are rarely due to the enlightened foresight of government. More often they arise as an act of desperation ­– when problems are ‘not understood very well, when there are different points of view and you’re not going to get them all consolidated.’ They become necessary when problems get stuck and governments are in trouble.

The World Economic Forum has ranked a global water crisis as the biggest risk facing the planet over the next decade.

This set of circumstances arose in Sacramento, California in the 1990s, during a period of dramatic population growth in California, which resulted in increased pressure on water resources. Environmental groups, agricultural interests, developers and councils were fighting over water management and most cities had little if any conservation practices, or knowledge about how water was being used. At the time, jokes Innes, ‘whisky was for drinking and water was for fighting’. It was a text-book wicked problem that had seen much litigation and conflict without any real progress towards consensus. No jurisdiction or regional agency could resolve these issues and the problem was becoming more and more dire.

In response, state representatives instigated a Sacramento Water Forum. Interested parties including water providers, environmentalists, farmers, real estate agents, public interest players and public agencies were invited to join the Forum. Over the course of six years, this forum met to discuss and negotiate their interests, moving the conversation from a zero-sum game to one of mutual gain. The resultant consensus involved a complex package of agreements, about water treatment plants, habitat restoration, water conservation and ground water management.

A similar response to water management is necessary in Australia. Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked a global water crisis as the biggest risk facing the planet over the next decade. If the prolonged, acrimonious and complex negotiations surrounding the negotiation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is anything to go by, then Australia could stand to learn much from the Sacramento Water Forum experience. Current conflicts about the relative importance of environmental and economic priorities, disputes about the quality of research reports and calls from the community to be more involved in water management, are all indicative of the ‘institutional void’, which Innes wants collaborative planning policies to fill.

But how would Innes convince decision-makers to apply collaborative rationality to wicked problems? ‘I wouldn’t do it in a vacuum. I wouldn’t say, “Oh, by the way, collaborative planning would be much better than what you’re doing now.” Most authority figures think they know how to do what needs to be done. They don’t think they need to ask anybody else about it. So you have to look out for those people who are having a crisis. If someone is not getting their work done, that’s how opportunities arise.’

As Australia’s big wicked problems begin to stack up, water management appears to be in a state of perennial crisis, and only getting worse. There has never been a better time for collaborative planning.