Complex Problems, Comprehensive Solutions

Posted on February 19, 2020

Rubix Cube

Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

Having a good heart and good intentions are not good enough. If our goal is to better serve disenfranchised individuals and groups in our communities, to implement projects with tangible results, we require the same level of competence and preparation that we would for any other professional endeavor. Attempting to assist a broken neighborhood or establish better communication with a prevalent minority group requires no less of a mindful, deliberate strategy than a large-scale capital improvement project or department re-organization.

Matters of social justice are complicated. It’s not uncommon to find that on top of a tangled web of interrelated problems are different perspectives and priorities to further exacerbate the situation. In order to be consistently successful, we require a comprehensive, replicable process that can handle the nuances and unexpected hurdles we’ll come across.

Interdisciplinary Research

My first core class in the Humanities is on “interdisciplinary research”, essentially how to conduct a research project that requires the integration of two or more academic disciplines. Just as the course focuses on how to synthesize sociology, economics, philosophy, and more, so too do we in local government have to bring together multiple fields such as engineering, law, finance, recreation, and so on. Below is a ten-step process from the initial concept to evaluation.

*Although there is a certain flow to the order, anyone using this should feel free to move back and forth among the steps as needed. In green is a simplified, hypothetical example.

  1. Define the problem: Sometimes the problem we’re trying to solve is apparent, other times it takes its own effort to pinpoint what will be the most beneficial project.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s decided to enable young people in poverty, and our local government is going to start a leadership program teaching them their local rights and how to affect local policy and projects.

  1. Justify using an interdisciplinary approach: Sometimes we can complete a project with just one department, and only minimal assistance from others. Sometimes it really takes a larger team.

Upon close examination, no department seems to have the knowledge/tools to succeed alone, there are lessons from multiple departments that should be included.

  1. Identify relevant [groups/departments]: First it is a matter of brainstorming any and all groups that could be involved, then narrowing it down to those who are integral.

After careful deliberation, an initial list of ten groups is paired down to the local School District, Clerk’s Office, Planning, and Law Enforcement.

  1. Conduct the [research]: Talk to residents, experts, other communities who did similar projects, research past efforts, see if there’s an academic paper that’s applicable.

Extra time goes towards learning about the impoverished neighborhoods, the school, successful youth leadership programs in other municipalities, etc.

  1. Develop adequacy in each relevant [group/department]: Spend the time not only to learn each group’s/department’s surface-level opinion, but their underlying philosophy, what they base their conclusions on, and their insights into the project.
  • The School District has intimate knowledge of the potential and struggles of the youth, as well as interests and aspirations. They rely on coursework and direct engagement with the youth.
  • The Clerk’s Office knows the relevant laws to youth such as curfew and has overall the best knowledge of the local government’s processes and procedures. It uses the municipal code, resolutions, and experience with licenses/permits.
  • Planning knows the ins and outs of land use and rights, zoning, what’s been approved and declined. They adhere to zoning and the municipal code.
  • Law Enforcement has insights into the potential risks for youth-in-poverty. They rely on experience and the police records.
  1. Analyze the problem and evaluate each insight: Write down the different insights, and carefully consider their strengths, weaknesses, and relevancy to the project.

After close examination, all the insights offered are mapped out in an organized, easy-to-use format for use in future steps.

  1. Identify conflicts between insights and their sources: It’s normal and expected that groups/departments will have contradicting insights and beliefs.

The main conflicts are with Planning’s disinterest due to not having prior experience with youth, and differences of opinion with the School District and Law Enforcement on what should be included to steer youth towards positive decision-making.

  1. Create common ground between insights: Through conversation, compromise, and finding what shared values and interests groups have that may not be initially apparent, the project can be strengthened both in support and effectiveness.

Planning is swayed to see the importance of youth and their role. The School District and Law Enforcement communicate and discover where they hold the same beliefs and develop the program accordingly.

  1. Construct a more comprehensive understanding: If successful, the results should be greater than the sum of the parts, a project that takes on a broader, more inclusive, more flexible, and/or more nuanced approach than once thought possible.

The project is incorporating elements that don’t just piece the different groups involved together like a puzzle, but is built on a deeper understanding on how the School and Departments influence one another, how the youth can truly make an impact, etc.

  1. Reflect on, test, and communicate the understanding: Once ready, it’s time to implement the project, see how it goes, and then make public the effort so others may learn and potentially follow suit.

The program including the successes, struggles, lessons learned, etc. are posted on the community website and is shared in a state newsletter for other local governments to see.

Our Process

Anyone interested can find a further breakdown and explanation of each step in “Interdisciplinary Research Process and Theory” by Allen F. Repko and Rick Szostak. Whether we use the above steps, or more likely incorporate them into other processes we already practice such as Bleiker Training’s Consent Building, Lean Six Sigma, or another extensive methodology, we should be confident that we can tackle the problems set before us.

Complex problems. Comprehensive Solutions.

See you next month!

This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado. Read all of Matt’s other blogs at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

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