The ‘wicked problems’ facing communities and change agents

Jason Stevens

$30 billion in delayed or cancelled infrastructure projects, including for the energy transition, are ‘wicked problems’ facing public participation and change agents deeply committed to giving communities a voice in policy decisions.

Community opposition has played a vital role in these development outcomes over the last decade. It highlights complex trade-offs and diverse stakeholder interests, even as Australia celebrates its recent milestone where — for the first time — debate for a referendum has occurred online. 

“Quality engagement is crucial,” says Marion Short, chief executive officer of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Australasia. “It enhances ESG outcomes and is also fiscally responsible.”

Her views intersect with those of Mel Hagedorn, director of client services at Granicus, in a nation where every generation after Gen X has grown up in a highly digitised world regularly exposed to online discussions. 

Granicus client services director Mel Hagedorn, International Association for Public Participation chief executive Marion Short and publisher Corrie McLeod

“Wicked problems demand adaptive strategies,” explains Ms Hagedorn. “Engagement in the 21st century requires a redesign of traditional approaches, from co-governance to tailored education and nuanced participation levels.” 

In their lively debate in episode three of The Loop podcast series, produced by in partnership with Granicus, people emerge at the heart of trade-offs between energy and the environment, sparking intense community reactions.  

“It’s multi-generational, impacting landowners and youth who ponder their future,” says Ms Short. “Social media amplifies this, for better or worse, creating real challenges.” 

While she emphasises managing communities and key stakeholders as part of good engagement design, Ms Hagedorn explores the intricacies of digital communication and its challenges, passionately empowering communities through digital transformation and social networking. 

“We’ve had several decades of Parliament telling us how to tackle these issues,” asserts Ms Hagedorn, “and it hasn’t worked.”  

Granicus works with IAP2 by participating in leadership forums and discussing community engagement practices, particularly deliberative engagement, to improve the quality of interactions between governments and citizens. 


Granicus supports IAP2’s initiatives by aligning with its core values, such as giving impacted people a voice in decision-making processes. 

One recent leadership forum was significant because it coincided with signing the Voice to Parliament declaration in Uluru and Indigenous Australians’ self-determination. 

“We share the fundamental belief that those people affected by a decision have a right to participate in the decision-making process,” says Ms Short, particularly around infrastructural policymaking.

Ms Hagedorn points out that “some wicked problems tend to have low levels of community participation due to their complexity and the longer timeline required for resolution.” 

The concept of “truth” also emerges as a critical issue in the relationship between the government and its local communities. 

For instance, Ms Short questions the authenticity of the decision-making process. “If the decision’s locked in, then the engagement should focus on how we move forward from here – otherwise, it’s misleading.”

Both are concerned that many political decision-makers believe they have a mandate from their community when, in fact, they don’t. This is particularly true for building new dams or roads through communities or transitioning to new energy transmission systems. 

Even with dialogue, participation, and clear design frameworks between citizens and public servants, outcomes may misfire. 

“At the end of the day, there are people who are in charge or responsible for making decisions,” says Ms Hagedorn. “Sometimes, you can do all those perfect things, but then things change with unexpected decisions.” 

When this happens, it puts the change agents in the heart of the community crossfire and discord, something often missed by the public and media. The well-being of these practitioners is vital; they continue to converse with disenchanted locals, expecting different outcomes. 

“We’re in it because we care. We’re highly empathetic individuals, and we want to leave the community in a really good place.”

The Loop podcast series and accompanying articles are produced by in partnership with Granicus. 

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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