An urgent question that frequently comes up in problem solving conversations is how to pay for the necessary resources. But what if we’re asking the wrong question?
In government, there never seems to be enough money to solve all of the problems residents face. The number of government staff and amount of taxpayer revenue fails to keep pace with the rapid emergence of increasingly complex problems. But what if only considering government budgets and staff is the wrong way to look at it? What if we considered the community the most valuable resource in solving public problems?
The litter problem: optimizing services may not optimize outcomes
Take a surge in litter on a city’s streets as an example of a public problem. Let’s say a city suddenly receives an overwhelming amount of requests to clean up polluted areas that were once clean. Given enough time and money, surely, the city should be able to provide the services needed to restore the cleanliness of the streets.
With funding to address the problem, the government could invest in better 311 technology to make it easier to respond to complaints and hire more staff to collect the litter. While this may seem like a common sense approach, it can have unintended consequences when met with complex reality.
If a simple call to 311 will quickly result in a cleaner street, complaints — and littering — may, in fact, increase. With an increased volume of complaints, you will need to hire more staff to keep up. The investment to optimize services will actually increase demand, making it financially unsustainable in the long run. Supplier-induced demand is a well-documented phenomena, where expenditure can increase without a commensurate improvement in outcomes.
This scenario is just one of many that could feasibly result, but it demonstrates that the public problems government deals with are increasingly complex. Results are often unpredictable, and relying on government resources alone excludes stakeholders best equipped to deal with complexity: residents closest to the problems!
Relationship building: a reimagined role for government & those it serves
Public problems require solutions fueled by an empowered public who feel supported to address challenges collectively. This does not mean shifting responsibility away from government, who should remain accountable to the communities they serve. Rather, it challenges the notion that government’s role is to collect taxpayer dollars and fund required services.
Instead, government’s role is to be a facilitator and relationship builder who helps local actors better understand and address problems collectively. As my Adrian recently said, “a more human positive government…starts with a recognition that the quality of the system as a whole is determined by the quality of the human relationships within it.” Struck with increased litter in the community, the government could cultivate relationships among local actors closest to the polluted areas to identify and address what caused the surge in litter, rather than investing in services.
In Gloucester, for example, when residents grew dissatisfied with a private contractor tasked with maintaining landscapes, the city council commissioned a group of eight young people living in the community to look after their local landscapes. Instead of dedicating city staff to figuring out how to better manage the financially motivated contractor, the council deliberately shared power with those most impacted by the problem.
“It works better because people who do it actually care about it, and as a consequence everyone respects the environment,” says Jordan, the 17-year-old in charge of coordinating the working group. The young maintenance group is just one example of many local approaches Gloucester has adopted.
This community-based approach is certainly not a new concept, but it is increasingly taking root in pockets across the world — often due to necessity. In the United Kingdom, for example, austerity has decreased spending in local government by more than a fifth since 2010. With the combination of budget cuts and increasingly complex social challenges, forces familiar to anyone in local government, imaginative, collaborative approaches are required.
While this approach may have evolved out of financially constrained environments, the key takeaway should not be that we can now afford to underinvest in our communities. If something saves time and money, it is wrong to assume less investment is needed in the long run. Critically, I am arguing for the opposite.
If a community has innovated to create something extraordinary in the face of limiting constraints, we must invest in removing the constraints local actors identify and study the conditions by which that innovation flourished (e.g., greater autonomy, a culture of experimentation, feeling supported to take risks). This means more unrestricted support and funding from national to local governments and from governments to community members closest to the problems.
What next: the whole is greater than the sum of its most powerful parts
One of the core challenges that has prevented community-driven approaches from becoming more mainstream is how to make problem solving truly inclusive, particularly in areas with deeply entrenched inequality. Often a lack of time and money is not just a problem for governments, but also for community members.
When residents face barriers — whether financial, cultural, etc. — to participate in the problem solving process, it is not just the excluded residents who suffer. Their marginalization makes the larger whole less equipped to problem solve. In areas of greater inequality, power is further concentrated in the hands of the few, who, being the most removed from many of the most pressing problems, are less well positioned to solve them.
Rather than dedicate their time and money to tweaking existing services, those in positions of power should intentionally create more space for others, particularly those most affected by problems, to contribute. In addition to marginalized residents, frontline staff, who feel pressure to deliver mandated services they didn’t help design, should also be involved.
Redistributing power means examining structures that unfairly reward some and lead others to feel disempowered. It means giving greater permission and room for frontline staff and residents to speak up, spark the public imagination, and creatively co-create brighter futures. While time and money will always constrain public problem solvers, reimagining public problems as opportunities for the public to work together can break down divides, enable greater creativity, and increase the chances of addressing the most pressing needs of those experiencing the problems.