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Problems Versus Dilemmas

May 24, 2009

Recently, Michael Stahl, writing in the May 2009 edition of the American Society for Public Administration‘s monthly newsletter, PA Times, argued that the development and training of public administration practitioners was too focused on solutions and needed to become more problem-focused and results-oriented.  Sadly, this view has become all too prevalent and reflects the sort of short-term thinking that has produced the economic and social malaise confronting too many communities.

Building and maintaining community trust and confidence in the democratic legitimacy of government, non-profit, and even for-profit leaders’ decisions depends less on an outcome focus than it does an appreciation of the importance of participation.  Trust does not require reciprocity.  People will support decisions and actions contrary to their own interests, but only if they can see the decisions themselves as just.  As such, equity demands transparency, and the best place for people to gain such a perspective is on the front-lines of the decision-making process.

When we focus on bringing people together instead of bringing them along, we not only build confidence in our decisions, but also the competence and capacity of the individuals and groups with whom we collaborate to share the work required to see them through.

Focusing on problems and seeking results are indeed important.  But in a world where so many of the problems we face have no single solution much less clearly “best” outcome, focusing on results tends to produce winners and losers, and more often the losers outnumber the winners.  When we accept that these wicked issues are dilemmas, not problems, we come to appreciate the importance of seeing solutions not as means, but as equally important ends in and of themselves.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 28, 2010 5:19 am

    I have written an article in my blog about ‘Solving Dilemmas’ at

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