• Opinion
  • November 19, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 2

It’s time to let citizens tackle the wickedest public problems

Opinion: Public problem-solving can produce creative resolutions to formidable challenges

This opinion piece was written by Gabriella Capone, a graduate fellow at The GovLab. It was a winner of the 2018 Apolitical Young Thought Leaders competition. For more like this, see the other winning entries.


Rain ravaged Gdańsk in 2016, taking the lives of two residents and causing millions of euros in damage. Despite its 700-year history of flooding the city was overwhelmed by these especially devastating floods. Also, Gdańsk is one of the European coasts most exposed to rising sea levels. It needed a new approach to avoid similar outcomes for the next, inevitable encounter with this worsening problem.

Bringing in citizens to tackle such a difficult issue was not the obvious course of action. Yet this was the proposal of Dr. Marcin Gerwin, an advocate from a neighbouring town who paved the way for Poland’s first participatory budgeting experience.

Mayor Adamowicz of Gdańsk agreed and, within a year, they welcomed about 60 people to the first Citizens Assembly on flood mitigation. Implemented by Dr. Gerwin and a team of coordinators, the Assembly convened over four Saturdays, heard expert testimony, and devised solutions.

The Assembly was not only deliberative and educational, it was action-oriented. Mayor Adamowicz committed to implement proposals on which 80% or more of participants agreed. The final 16 proposals included the investment of nearly $40 million USD in monitoring systems and infrastructure, subsidies to incentivise individuals to improve water management on their property, and an educational “Do Not Flood” campaign to highlight emergency resources.

When properly designed, public problem-solving can produce creative resolutions to formidable challenges

It may seem risky to outsource the solving of difficult issues to citizens. Yet, when properly designed, public problem-solving can produce creative resolutions to formidable challenges. Beyond Poland, public problem-solving initiatives in Mexico and the United States are making headway on pervasive issues, from flooding to air pollution, to technology in public spaces.

The GovLab, with support from the Tinker Foundation, is analysing what makes for more successful public problem-solving as part of its City Challenges program. Below, I provide a glimpse into the types of design choices that can amplify the impact of public problem-solving.

Pose substantive problems that affect the people you are consulting

Posing a “wicked problem” to citizens may seem counterintuitive: what does a group of citizens know about flood mitigation? Or transit planning? Or the government processes that affect them? In a 2017 survey I conducted of over 30 legislators, 47% worried that citizens’ lack of education, interest, or access to the engagement process posed barriers to successful citizen engagement. A mere 9% saw a benefit to harnessing citizen expertise and experience in policy making.

But it turns out that not knowing the answers to such questions doesn’t preclude citizens from devising elegant solutions to them, even in politically-contentious environments.

Public problem-solving taps into the creativity and on-the-ground knowledge of individuals, providing government with a way forward on baffling issues. In 2017, San Pedro ran a City Challenge with GovLab and Codeando Mexico to gather the top 10 citizen solutions to the city’s transportation problems, which contribute to it being the most polluted municipality in Mexico.

A leading citizen-generated solution focused on the fact that 85% of schoolchildren were driven to-and-from school individually. The City Challenge recommendations led to policy changes disincentivising driving an individual child to school. It also sparked mobility solutions: carpools, carpooling lanes and new school bus routes. San Pedro saw a 94% reduction in the number of cars driving children to school, a 50% reduction in waiting time for pick-ups and drop-offs, and the accordant, positive environmental externalities.

Turning to citizens may actually accelerate government problem-solving capacity in politically-fraught environments

Further, turning to citizens may actually accelerate government problem-solving capacity in politically-fraught environments, especially when engagement is designed to be representative of the community the problem affects. Gdańsk’s Assembly matched the makeup of the city in terms of gender, education, neighbourhood, and other qualities. Since solutions had the imprimatur of a representative subset of the people, Gerwin credits the Assembly with enabling a new course of action for the city for the Mayor.

This is an added benefit of addressing a substantive, tricky problem of import to government: citizens can provide input of relevance to institutions, building legitimacy, participation, and, above all, impact, in the process.

Enable citizens via expertise and collaboration with officials

Once citizens are tasked with a meaningful, well-defined challenge, access to experts can sophisticate their solution, and collaboration with officials can improve viability and relevance to institutions handling implementation.

Participants in Citizens Assemblies have educational days featuring short talks from experts, followed by deliberation and Q&A. Experts comment on the Assembly’s recommendations and, with unanimous agreement, can modify the program. This mediates citizen creativity and on-the-ground know-how with subject-matter expertise, sometimes leading to more technical recommendations, like creating subsidies and incentives, or revising metrics that guide water management.

Experts also played a critical role in San Pedro’s City Challenge model, particularly in refining the proposals. Citizen participants had 10 weeks of coaching from local and international mentors to iterate and improve on their ideas. This raised the bar for solution quality, and helped participants better target the core problem, supporting elegant solutions around policy, people’s daily experience, and municipal infrastructure.

Knowing what works, what doesn’t, and why

New efforts provide guidance on what public institutions can do to enable effective public problem-solving. Despite their promise, these initiatives are few, and there is still much learning and experimentation to be done. For each initiative that has tangibly impacted a public problem, there is a handful of those that have failed to make headway. Fortunately, through prototyping, knowledge sharing, and evaluation, we can improve public problem-solving, and enable communities to do the same.  Gabby Capone

This piece shares early learnings from the City Challenges team’s research on public problem-solving, open innovation, and harnessing expertise, funded by the Tinker Foundation. Next year, in addition to releasing a framework and case studies on public problem-solving, GovLab will run a Multi-City Challenge across cities in Latin America to help them better public problems, and to level-up the City Challenges model.

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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