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A systemic integration approach to designing interagency responses to wicked problems

Sydelko, Pamela; Midgley, Gerald; Espinosa, Angela


Pamela Sydelko

Angela Espinosa


Wicked problems are open-ended, highly interdependent issues that cross agency, stakeholder, jurisdictional, political and geopolitical boundaries. This confounds governments because policies and budgets tend to be aligned within these boundaries and not across them, making it difficult to bring the appropriate talent, knowledge and assets into an interagency approach to tackling whatever wicked problem is at hand.

Many governments realize the need for a ‘whole-of-government’ approach to tackling large complex issues, and have employed various methods to achieve interagency and other private/public partnerships. One approach is to employ experts (sometimes called Czars) who are in charge of specific policies and can coordinate input from across government and private entities. Other organizational approaches have focused on forming high-level committees and task forces made up of representation from stakeholder organizations. These approaches are intended to increase cross-government information sharing, identify best-practices, and generate reports that include recommendations to policy makers. However, the formation of these vehicles can be ad hoc and not designed holistically to handle the complexity of wicked problems where interdependencies abound and the perspectives and values of agencies and other stakeholders can often be in conflict. Other complaints about forming these ad hoc groups include the slow, long-term process required to build trust; one agency typically takes the lead, creating problematic power relationships when their own inevitably partial perspective starts to override the perspectives of other agencies; difficulties of reaching agreement on crosscutting agendas; too many meetings; inaction in the face of the above difficulties; and missed opportunities.

The research described in this paper was conducted to develop and evaluate a new Systemic Intervention approach to designing interagency meta-organizations. The term meta-organization is used because it is important to note that this does not have to mean a new official bricks-and-mortar organization, but an organization nonetheless. The term “interagency” is sometimes used to mean this meta-organization. It is a multi-method approach that combines the viable system model (VSM) as the organizational design instrument with participatory problem structuring methods and boundary critique.


Sydelko, P., Midgley, G., & Espinosa, A. (2017). A systemic integration approach to designing interagency responses to wicked problems. In Proceedings of the 61st Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (23-54)

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (Published)
Conference Name 61st Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, ISSS 2017: From Science to Systemic Solutions - Systems Thinking for Everyone
Start Date Jul 9, 2017
End Date Jul 14, 2017
Online Publication Date Jan 10, 2018
Publication Date 2017
Deposit Date Apr 1, 2022
Publicly Available Date Jan 12, 2024
Publisher International Society for the Systems Sciences
Pages 23-54
Book Title Proceedings of the 61st Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences
ISBN 978-1-906740-15-3
Public URL
Publisher URL


Published proceedings (6.9 Mb)

Copyright Statement
©️ 2017 The Authors

The submitted manuscript has been created by UChicago Argonne, LLC, Operator of Argonne National Laboratory (“Argonne”). Argonne, a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, is operated under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357. The U.S. Government retains for itself, and others acting on its behalf, a paid-up nonexclusive, irrevocable worldwide license in said article to reproduce, prepare derivative works, distribute copies to the public, and perform publicly and display publicly, by or on behalf of the Government.

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