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Review: Addressing the most complex problems of the 21st century demands a humble approach to policy-making

Government analysis, assessment and research activities 13.11.2020 10.14
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For the government to formulate policies that address the most pressing questions of the 21st century, it must first address the structural and cultural problems of its policy-making processes. Solving wicked problems requires policy-making that moves away from the illusion of top-down steering into a networked model. The review ’Humble Government’ describes how a humble approach to policy-making can help the Government in building truly long-term policy-making when dealing with wicked problems.

A humble approach to policy-making, based on Professor Charles F. Sabel’s Experimentalist Governance theory, could help the Finnish Government in living up to its pledges for continuous learning, new forms of interaction with stakeholders and long-term policy-making through improved collaboration with parliament. The review, conducted by think tank Demos Helsinki and Professor Sabel, is part of the Steering2020 project.

“In a context characterised by complexity, nonlinearity and uncertainty, it is impossible to arrive at an adequate, let alone optimal solution to a problem without comparing the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches in the contexts where they are applied”, says professor Sabel.

In the context of policy-making, humility means beginning with an acknowledgement of the prevailing uncertainty and is thus building a continuously iterative process, in which actors are willing to - and allowed to - change their mind as new information arises.

Together with professor Sabel, his experimentalist governance theory has been transformed into four conditions and concrete steps for implementing these conditions in the Finnish context. The conditions are

  1. building a societal consensus around political goals,
  2. devolving problem-solving to stakeholders with first-hand experience of issues,
  3. designing feedback mechanisms for effective learning and
  4. committing to continuous revision of framework goals and metrics throughout the process.

When combined, these principles can build trust that enables more long-term policy-making.

The aim has been to build a model on some of the strengths of the Finnish governance system.

”Examples like the government’s response to COVID-19 and one of the greatest Finnish success stories – the education system – have been successful because they follow the conditions of humble policy-making. The more complex and uncertain a policy issue is, the more useful it is to approach it through humility”, Silva Mertsola from Demos Helsinki describes.

This report presents an ideal model for how a humble approach could be applied in the Finnish context, and an analysis of which the first steps towards an increasingly humble approach could be. 

For further inquiries:

Consultant Silva Mertsola, Demos Helsinki, [email protected]
Chairperson of the steering group, Financial Counsellor/Head of Unit Katju Holkeri, Ministry of Finance, [email protected]  

The Government’s joint analysis, assessment and research activities (VN TEAS) produce data used to support decision-making, everyday operations and knowledge-based management. They are guided by the Government’s annual plan for analysis, assessment and research. The content of the reports published in the publication series of the Government’s analysis research and research activities is the responsibility of the producers of the data in question and does not necessarily represent the view of the Government.