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Associate feature: Wicked problems in the public sector and how to solve them

Associate feature: Wicked problems in the public sector and how to solve them

The need to continually provide employees with the opportunity to learn and develop their skills and knowledge has never been as important as it is now. We are living in a time where we are all expected to be multi-skilled and adaptable, while still retaining expertise and knowledge in our chosen field.

This can pose a real problem for councils facing an increasingly complex, changing and uncertain environment. According to Audit Scotland’s report, Local government in Scotland: Financial overview 2017/18, local government revenue funding decreased by 6.92% between 2013/14 and 2017/18.  At the same time, councils have cited increasing demand for services as a major pressure on budgets. 

To meet these challenges, many councils have initiated transformation programmes. It is no surprise, therefore, that a second Audit Scotland report, Local government in Scotland: Challenges and performance 2019, concluded that councils need to ensure they have the staff, skills and leaders to deliver change. This report also recommends that councils continue to seek and implement innovative ways of working and collaborate with communities, partners and the third sector to drive transformational change. 

In an environment where the Scottish public-sector is being asked to ‘do more with less’, public sector leaders need to prioritise innovation, and mobilise resources to invest in innovative solutions. This can involve developing middle managers so that they can lead innovation by creating task forces and working groups dedicated to innovation, often involving partners.

Workforce planning is key to achieving this. Councils need to be clear about the skills and knowledge their workforce has now and the ways in which skills need to evolve over time to meet future needs. They need to know where the gaps exist and what training is required to fill them. Developing effective leadership and management skills throughout the organisation can respond to challenging and changing local and national demands.

In their 2016 book Enhancing Public Innovation by Transforming Public Governance, Torfing and Triantafillou highlight the strategic importance of innovation within the public sector to address the “growing number of wicked problems that are complex, ill-defined and hard to solve”. Public bodies can’t implement programmes of trial and error as the consequences could cause irreparable damage to users, citizens or business.

While I don’t have the answer to any of the wicked problems you may be facing in your organisation, I do have a view on how you can set out on the path to solving them. I believe transformative learning, incorporating ongoing reflection on experiences, is the way to ensure teams have the skills and knowledge they need to create collaborative and innovative solutions. It has been proven that organisations that promote a culture of continual learning and development have far less wicked problems and a more contented workforce.

That is why we have expanded our award-winning Academy at Scotland Excel to include a range of accredited programmes, which respond to public sector demand for transformative learning programmes in leadership and management, project management, and business analysis and innovation.

Scotland Excel Academy programmes have been developed by the public sector, for the public sector. They are designed to allow students to quickly and easily implement the knowledge and skills learned directly into their workplace and help to solve every day issues as well as wicked, and even super-wicked, problems.

All our programmes are delivered through work-based learning which ensures a quick return for individuals and organisations. Programmes are available at a range of levels to benefit the leaders of today and tomorrow.

I know from conversations with past students and their organisations that The Academy has positively changed the way they now work to deliver the essential services for the public.

As part of our drive to create a roadmap to identifying and filling skills gaps in the Scottish public sector, we held an event which brought together key influencers from organisational development in local authorities with speakers from organisations including Skills Development Scotland and the Centre for Work-based Learning to explore the current landscape and horizon scan for upcoming challenges and opportunities. 

We are following this event up with workshops across the county in 2020 to take a deeper dive into innovation and organisational development.            

I would be interested to hear your views. If you would like more information on how The Academy can help you or your employees, email me at or call 0141 618 7436.

Ian McNaught is Scotland Excel’s Strategic Organisational Development Manager and leads the Scotland Excel Academy

This piece was sponsored by Scotland Excel

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