Conspicuous compassion and wicked problems

Boyd Hunter, Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University (and, full disclosure, former employer of me as an RA), has put together a great article concerning the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill. This is the scam discussed here, previously – but it happens to be Boyd’s area of expertise.

He discusses the idea of the ‘wicked’ problem – one with multiple dimensions, incomplete and contradictory requirements and, ultimately, rarely a solution – or rarely one that does not generate another wicked problem of its own.


Indigenous policy is one of most complex areas facing governments, as it involves many issues that do not exist for other Australians: a dynamic cultural life; a need to change social norms; unique forms of property rights, such as native title; and the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, sometimes arising from problematic historical government interventions (such as, the stolen generation).

Indigenous policy is easily characterised as a wicked problem. Obviously, mainstream Australian society has a different perspective on the problem from Indigenous stakeholders, who are more likely to emphasise land rights, cultural difference and injustice. One of the main debates for the NT intervention is whether the trade-off between Indigenous rights and socioeconomic status is being taken into account. The existence of this trade-off means Indigenous Australians must own both the problem and solution (Henry 2007).

If behavioural and attitudinal change is required, then an adequate process of consultation with Indigenous people is obviously crucial to securing their cooperation. Imposing solutions from above is both profoundly illiberal and unlikely to produce real solutions at all.

“Issues that do not exist for other Australians” is some kind of understatement. I could learn a thing or two of politeness from Boyd.

The article’s discussion of the context of the intervention (such as rates of child abuse not actually exceeding non-indigenous rates) is very enlightening (for those affiliated; I’m not suggesting international readers are so wonk-ish as to care, greatly), as is the critique of the rhetoric surrounding the policy.

While the analogy of war provides good copy for the media, and hence has utility for politicians, it is a singularly inappropriate term for constructing a positive and informed debate about complex social issues. If Indigenous child abuse and community dysfunction are wicked problems, then the oversimplification of the issues diminishes our capacity to construct effective policy options.

If one is serious about Indigenous policy, one needs to attempt to build a long-term consensus rather than construct a heroic-style conflict between competing policies where one policy is invariably portrayed as a failure and the other as the solution.

As well as a great criticism of the absence of any sort of structure for evaluation of the programme, going in (deliberate?):

One of the most disappointing aspects of the NT intervention is that there was virtually no lead time to prepare or think about an evaluation framework. Some ex ante planning with Indigenous leaders and relevant bureaucracies would have both lessened the public resistance and facilitated evaluation. It will now be very difficult to evaluate the outcomes of the intervention because no groundwork was laid to establish credible benchmarks for what existed before the policy shift.

The paper is forthcoming in Agenda, the quarterly journal of the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at The Australian National University.


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