This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available in OnlineFirst.
Stephen Page, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington
Wicked Problems and Civic Capacity
Cities today face various wicked problems that prompt fundamental disagreements and distrust within the body politic (Rittel and Weber 1973). Land use, transportation, housing, education, and other complex issues confound policy makers’ abilities to agree on the contours of problems, much less devise and implement effective solutions that satisfy citizens.
Because they are so intractable, wicked problems require extraordinary politics that build “civic capacity” by blending conflict and cooperation to foster both learning and bargaining (Briggs 2008). When successful, such initiatives produce shared understandings and coordinated efforts by both elite and grassroots actors to address a multi-faceted public problem that transcends the capacities of individual organizations to address alone (Stone 2001).
I seek to refine our understanding of how to build civic capacity. I argue that its development depends heavily on leaders’ willingness and ability to manage learning and bargaining among stake holders by influencing policy networks, governance institutions, and shared cognitive frames.
I support this claim by comparing efforts to address two wicked problems in Seattle in the 1990s and 2000s – urban growth and transportation infrastructure. These examples highlight the benefits for civic capacity of building robust networks and legitimate, transparent governance institutions, and of adjusting the frames of debate in light of situational demands.
Urban Growth and Transportation Infrastructure in Seattle
Challenges related to urban growth and transportation infrastructure have vexed citizens and policy makers in Seattle since the region began growing in earnest in the late 1980s. Subsequently, intense debates have recurred among a range of elite and grassroots actors about land use and transportation.
The City of Seattle initiated efforts to build civic capacity for urban growth in response to neighborhood outrage over the City’s technocratic responses to rapid commercial growth downtown and a 1991 state law mandating comprehensive city plans to manage growth. Officials convened a City summit and neighborhood planning sessions in which participants developed guiding principles and and set priorities for growth in their neighborhoods with assistance from City departments (Sirianni 2007).
Meanwhile, a mix of public and private transportation leaders sought to expand rail transit and highway capacity in the Seattle region starting in 1988. As new needs emerged over the next two decades, policy debates centered on the merits and designs of three major infrastructure projects: regional light rail, a city-wide monorail (which disbanded amidst financial problems), and the redesign and reconstruction of a state highway running through downtown that was damaged in a 2001 earthquake. In combination, these debates held dramatic implications for the density, mobility, economic and social demography, and urban form of Seattle.
The concurrent debates about Seattle’s urban growth and transportation infrastructure over the past quarter century reflect the findings from existing research about the challenges of building civic capacity <!–[if supportFields]>CITATION Sto011 \t \m Sto01 \m Bri08 \t \l 1033 <![endif]–>(Stone 2001, Stone, Henig, et al. 2001, Briggs 2008)<!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. It is difficult and uncertain work, requiring constructive engagement in both conflict and cooperation as urban conditions and politics change over time. Differences in how the two debates unfolded in Seattle nevertheless suggest some lessons for civic leaders about how to exercise strategic judgment and influence.
In the case of urban growth, City officials, business leaders, and neighborhood activists built robust network links with each other by engaging in transparent, well-informed discussions in carefully structured governance fora. City officials deliberately enlisted both downtown business interests and neighborhood residents in substantive conversations about issues related to growth, and ensured that they directly influenced the City’s policy decisions about land use. These conversations among erstwhile opponents helped convert divided understandings of the challenges of urban growth into shared frames and joint commitments to accommodate growth while addressing its most deleterious impacts as the city grew. The process fostered perceptions of legitimacy among elite and grassroots actors who might have felt excluded or slighted in more opaque or poorly coordinated debates.
Transportation leaders, by contrast, were unable to create a central governance institution to convene policy discussions, so debates continued on multiple fronts simultaneously, reducing the transparency and increasing the complexity of making joint decisions. Relationships within the transportation policy network also became more, rather than less, conflicted over time as the complexity and stakes of the three infrastructure projects increased. Despite the efforts of a coalition of public and private actors to secure funding and support for both “roads and transit” in the early 1990s, the frames in the transportation debate became more divided over time. Transit supporters’ concerns about climate change and accessibility ran up against highway advocates’ concerns about individual choice and the mobility of people and goods. Disagreements and mutual misunderstandings persisted even after crucial decisions were reached and construction began on the light rail and state highway projects.
The urban growth example reveals that the learning and bargaining that shape civic capacity are amenable to leaders’ attempts to influence the networks, governance institutions, and frames of debate surrounding public problems. Since learning and bargaining can change actors’ views of what is possible and desirable, leadership tactics need to adapt to political circumstances – which also change over time.
To foster joint learning in the face of disagreements about wicked problems, efforts to build civic capacity may benefit initially from open-ended tactics on various fronts. Leaders can encourage a broad range of stake holders to explore alternative views of the problem by promoting frames that emphasize a broad, appealing vision, and foster simultaneous discussions in multiple governance venues. Grassroots neighborhood activists took some of these steps at the beginning of the urban growth case described above, which in turn prompted City officials to pursue more elaborate steps.
If stake holders’ understandings of a problem begin to align, civic capacity may benefit from structured bargaining focused on specific solutions and joint commitments. Leaders can narrow the framing of issues and solutions, reduce the number of governance venues in which debate occurs, and restrict participation to the actors with the most power and salient interests in key issues. They can clarify goals and focus debate on specific challenges. Several of these tactics appeared as the urban growth case unfolded in Seattle. While the transportation case also featured some of them (e.g., narrow framing, restricted participation), favorable conditions – the emergence of shared understandings of the problem – did not yet exist in the transportation field.
These findings have broad implications for policy makers and other leaders seeking to build civic capacity.
1. Most generally, they need to attend to and manage the mutual influences among the policy networks, governance institutions, and shared cognitive frames that affect political actors’ understandings and actions. In doing so, they should:
2. Recognize the challenges of building broad political will and operational capacity to address wicked problems;
3. Exercise flexibility and craftsmanship (Bardach 1998) to respond to contingent combinations of network configurations, institutional designs, and frames at different points in the process of building civic capacity; and
4. Acknowledge and address power differentials between elites and grassroots actors to increase the legitimacy of policy debates and to cultivate joint commitments to implement solutions.
Bardach, Eugene. 1998. Getting Agencies to Work Together: The Practice and Theory of Managerial Craftsmanship. Washington: Brookings Institution.
Briggs, Xavier de Souza. 2008. Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Rittel, Horst W. J., and Melvin Weber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4:155–69.
Sirianni, Carmen. 2007. “Neighborhood Planning as Collaborative Democratic Design.” Journal of the American Planning Association 73:373–87.
Stone, Clarence N. 2001. “Civic Capacity and Urban Education.” Urban Affairs Review 36:595–619.