Joseph C. Bentley: Utah Legislature has bad solutions for ‘wicked’ problems

A ‘wicked’ problem is not necessarily evil, but more complex than we may understand.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Representatives work on the house floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session.

According to our Founding Fathers, the proper role of government is to secure our unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The best way to do this is for our elected representatives to identify and democratically address the problems that stand in the way of achieving these goals. In the last session of the Utah Legislature, it seems that our legislators fell short in meeting this obligation.

In a recent editorial, The Salt Lake Tribune identified the following problems that were ignored: underfunded schools, affordable housing, polluted air, increasing scarcity of water, shortage of mental health and substance abuse treatment services. In a recent “Letter from the Editor,” Lauren Gustus added even more: current voting methods; the cost of clean water; transgender youngsters and high school sports; and restrictions of the freedom of the press to interview members of the legislature. Clearly, ignoring these problems greatly affects our lives and our pursuit of happiness.

All these problems are “wicked problems.” While term wicked is usually associated with evil or corrupt behaviors, it is also widely used to describe a class of problems that we all face. Atul Gawande, professor of medicine at Harvard, defined wicked problems as “messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interruptions depending upon one’s points of view…no solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or fully satisfying.” This pointedly describes the problems the legislature struggled with during the past weeks, and as was noted above, mostly ignored.

Wickedness was rampant in the legislature this year for the simple reason that almost all the problems they addressed were wicked.

Yet as they worked, they seemed to have no idea the kind with which they were struggling. No surgeon would operate until there was a proper diagnosis. No physician would prescribe medications for a patient unless they were confident about the nature of the illness. As Confucius wrote over 3000 years ago, “In order to change something, you have to call it by its right name.”

If the legislators had known that the problems, they faced were wicked, and understood what this meant, they would not have continued with “business as usual.” Passing laws written by one political party does little to make things better, and often make things worse. Wicked problems by nature are collective problems that affect everyone ,and so it is important that everyone have a voice in determining what should be done about them. Effective work on wicked problems must always be a collaborative activity.

“We would be vastly better off if we understood what wicked problems are and learned to distinguish between them and regular (or “tame” ) problems,” wrote Jay Rosen, professor journalism at New York University. “Vastly” is worth taking seriously. If the legislators had understood the difference, they would have been better prepared to tackle them — and to put into place temporary arrangements that would make things better, at least for a while. And we, their constituents, would more clearly understand that there is no solution for a wicked problem that is final or unchanging.

The legislator’s task is never finished. The problems they wrestle with today will be the problems that their successors wrestle with 10 and 20 years from now.

Their most important challenge has always been, and will always be, the renewal of our institutions. In 1963, John Gardner wrote “Only the blind and the complacent could fail to recognize the great tasks of renewal facing us — in government, in education, in race relations in urban redevelopment, and in international affairs, and most of all own minds and hearts.”

In over 50 years, nothing has changed.

As individuals, we are responsible for renewal in our minds and hearts, and, together with spouses and neighbors, in our families and neighborhoods. But government is responsible for leading us toward the necessary renewal in society. And in Utah, our legislature is not prepared.

Elected leaders — as well as government officials, CEO’s, team leaders, parents and spouses — will always find themselves struggling with wicked problems. If they hope to make progress, it is crucial that they all understand the nature of problems they are facing.

Joseph Bentley

Joseph C. Bentley, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of management and organizational behavior at the University of Utah. He and Michael Toth, Ph.D., are authors of “Exploring Wicked Problems: What They Are and Why They Are Important,” published in 2020.