Abstract: In this article we wish to briefly examine maritime security (MARSEC) not in a conventional way used by industry experts, but through the lens of a social policy planner. The latter leverages the very unique concept of ‘wicked problem(s)’ to work out solutions under the most extreme of circumstances, more specifically, when the key-stakeholders do not have the same understanding of the problem.
The Maritime Security Problem
Maritime security is a very broad field of study and often brings together under the same roof interests from extremely diverse backgrounds. In the case of Somali piracy for instance, supra-national (United Nations, International Maritime Organization, International Maritime Bureau), national (Governments, Navies, Intelligence Outfits) and private interests (shipowners, charterers, private maritime security companies, marine insurers) from around the world have successfully coordinated their efforts with Non-Governmental Organizations both to avert human suffering of Somalis and seafarers, and to work on a sustainable, long-term solution.
For such a remarkable alignment of the international community behind a common cause, it strikes as particularly impressive given that the stakeholders have (to put it diplomatically) very diverging views of the challenge. If you ask a marine insurer, a naval officer, a politician, a UN officer, a private maritime security professional, even a Somali, ‘what is the problem with piracy and its practitioners?’ they will all give you widely diverging definitions of the problem (if any at all…)!
Start with shipowners for instance. They most probably will underline the misery of the seafarers in captivity, insurance premiums, and then the loss of income (if not property). Politicians will focus on the human drama, regulatory issues (on the use of armed guards onboard merchant vessels) and potentially on the economic sustainability of naval fleets off Somalia. United Nations officers will express their feelings for the suffering both of Somali people and captive seafarers, and will further elaborate on issues of regional (prosecutorial) capacity building and national legislation. Marine insurers will express their absolute horror face to the risk of losing millions in insurance cover-payments to shipowners. Last but not least, many Somalis in Puntland will express (worst case scenario) sympathy for the Somali ‘coast guard’ protecting their ocean natural resources. With such a plethora of different perspectives on the problem, one is seriously tempted to call it a ‘wicked problem’.
Distinguishing properties of ‘wicked problems’ ‘Wicked problems’ share at least ten different distinguishing properties which are responsible for their unique nature. For all it matters though, the hallmark of these problems which have traditionally pestered policy makers and social planners, has remained all along the same: they can be ‘solved’ neither as ‘simple’ nor as ‘complex’ ones. Traditional analytical thinking (even iterative methods) used in engineering and sciences cannot yield ‘solution(s)’ to a ‘wicked problem’. At best, the planner can hope for ‘improvements’ or (as some social scientists put it) a re-solution.
A ‘clear-cut/endgame solution’ is beyond reach by default. Rittel and Webber (1973, p. 161) explicitly lay out the ten distinguishing properties of ‘wicked problems’:
1. There is no definitive formulation of the a solution to a ‘wicked problem’; For any given tame problem, an exhaustive formulation can be stated containing all the information the problem-solver needs for understanding and solving the problem, provided he knows his ‘art’, of course. This is not possible with wicked-problems.
2. ‘Wicked problems’ have no stopping rule; when solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are no criteria that tell when a solution has been found.
3. ‘Solutions’ to ‘wicked problems’ are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad; you cannot ever ‘solve’ a ‘wicked problem’ in the traditional analytical sense. You can only improve the situation that produces the problematic.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a ‘solution’ to a ‘wicked problem’; […], any ‘solution’, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended, virtually an unbounded, period of time.
5. Every ‘solution’ to a ‘wicked problem’ is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly; with a ‘wicked problem’, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves ‘traces’ that cannot be undone.
6. ‘Wicked problems ’do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential ‘solutions’, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan; There are no criteria which enable one to prove that all solutions to a ‘wicked problem’ have been identified and considered.
7. Every ‘wicked problem’ is essentially unique; […] despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance.
8. Every ‘wicked problem’ can be considered to be a symptom of another problem; Problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a ‘symptom’.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a ‘wicked problem’ can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution; ‘Crime in the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc., Each of these offers direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right?
10. The planner has no right to be wrong; […] the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypotheses that are later refuted—so long as the author abides by the rules of the game, of course. In the world of planning and ‘wicked problems’ no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live.
Coping Strategies: How do we ‘solve’ ‘wicked problems’?
The alternative method(s) of solving problems of any kind are depicted in Figure 1 (Roberts 2009, Ch. 20, p. 356). Pundits call these methods ‘coping strategies’. In the case of ‘wicked problems’ there are two questions to be asked for the planner to corroborate the nature of the problem: 1. Is there broad based agreement over both the definition of the problem and its solution?
2. Is power to define the problem and at the same time its solution concentrated or contested? The rationale described in Figure 1 gradually moves from the definition of the type of the problem (simple, complex, ‘wicked’), to the acid test of whether the power to define (the problem) and solve (it) is ‘contested’ or ‘concentrated’. In the former case, there is the choice of either a ‘competitive’ (War for instance) or a ‘collaborative’ copying strategy. In the latter case, a typical example of a standard bearer of ‘concentrated power’ who leverages ‘authoritative strategies’ is the U.S. Supreme Court.
- 1. They promote cost sharing practices;
- 2. They create strength in numbers;
- 3. They eliminate redundancies.
- 4. They enhance efficiency.
By the flip side of the same token though:
I. Collaborative strategies increase the so called ‘transaction costs’;
II. They potentially create ‘challenging synergies’;
III. They may also render the whole process of problem solving more time consuming.
Nancy Roberts (2009, Ch. 20, p. 361-372) describes the basic steps of a collaborative strategy in search a ‘solution’ to a ‘wicked problem’:
A. The bedrock of the whole process is the creation of a ‘spirit of collaboration’ translated as ‘working together’;
B. Of comparable importance is the development, validation and eventually implementation of a ‘strategic framework’ of principles and policies;
C. Collaboration is by default a challenging if not demanding effort and as such all the stakeholders in the problem solving process should strive for some ‘common ground’ instead of resigning to ‘silo mentality’;
D. The most intriguing part of the search for a plausible ‘solution’ is the ‘failure into collaboration’ eloquently summed up in ‘people have to learn what does not work before they are willing to absorb what they perceive to be the extra ‘costs’ associated with collaboration. This learning is especially important for people who come from different cultures’ (Nancy Roberts);
E. Get the whole system ‘in the room’ and create a ‘community of interest’. Aligning diverging definitions of a ‘wicked problem’, let alone the disparate interests of the stakeholders is a Herculean task, and for this the process must be utterly inclusive;
F. Last but not least, it is of the utmost importance for the stakeholders to have unwavering trust in the ‘solving’ process. Only then, within a context of strong commitment, does the whole endeavor have its best chances to come to fruition.
Is Maritime Security a Wicked Problem?
To determine the true nature of the maritime security problem is to investigate whether Somali piracy, for instance, features the distinguishing properties of a ‘wicked problem’. The challenge posed by Somali piracy has obviously neither a single, universally accepted definition nor a readily understandable stopping rule. A solution can only be a ‘one shot operation’, good-or-bad not right-or-wrong, with long term (positive or negative) consequences. By the same token, Somali piracy is uniquely benchmarked against the Nigerian one and a symptom of a host of other problems including utter poverty, corruption, and collapse of the state. As international pressure has been applied to the Somali piracy problem, the problem has continued to change. At its inception, Somali piracy was a fairly unsophisticated, local problem. The widespread implementation of industry Best Managements Practices (BMP-4), the presence of significant international Naval vessels, the use of convoys and a guarded shipping channel through the war risk zone, the initiation of offensive military operations to combat Somali piracy, the use of armed guard forces aboard transiting commercial vessels, and the continued payments of ever larger vessel ransoms, have combined to change the nature of the problem, but not to eliminate it. Piracy has become a well organized criminal enterprise. The pirates now utilize more sophisticated tactics both when seizing vessels, and when negotiating their release. The ransom values have significantly increased while the average duration of negotiations has also increased. The piracy risk area has expanded to include the sea space extending all the way to the Indian coast, and the overall number of events has drastically fallen, but the overall rate of hijackings versus attempts has not been significantly altered. Additionally, many of the conditions in Somalia that make piracy an attractive venture (including poverty, low life expectancies, arms and vessel availability, ineffective law enforcement, a high maritime traffic area, and high returns) still persist. The problem is far from solved (see Figure 2). Given a relaxation in the international pressure applied in response to the declining empirical number of annual events, the problem will undoubtedly morph again to fill the void.
Fig. 2 SOMALIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report (Horn of Africa) for 29/Nov. to 05/Dec., 2012
Establishing the character of maritime security as a ‘wicked problem’ creates some very interesting insights into a potentially robust ‘solution’ and its corresponding context. As was previously mentioned, a strategy of collaboration among the disparate stakeholders is of utmost importance and as such, it begs for full inclusivity. For all it matters though, (and in the case of Somali piracy it does matter a lot) inclusivity does not entail a ‘cake cutting exercise’ among the stakeholders but rather an alignment of all these interest groups (mainly the Somali people) behind the ultimate cause of eradicating the scourge! Piracy is neither a new challenge, nor one that has ever been solved. Piracy has simply moved from one area of the world’s shipping lanes to another based on the solutions applied at any given time. We are unlikely to fully eradicate piracy, but we can limit it by understanding the true nature of the problem and the nature of potential solutions that may be applied in a given area at a given time.
- U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, SOMALIA: Piracy Analysis and Warning Weekly (PAWW) Report (Horn of Africa) for 29/Nov. to 05/Dec., 2012.
- Rittel, Horace W.J. and Webber, Melvin M. ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.’ Policy Sciences. Vol. 4. 1973.
- Roberts, Nancy. ‘Coping with Wicked Problems: The Case of Afghanistan.’ Research in Public Policy Management, Volume 11b: Learning from International Public Management Reform. Ed. Lawrence Jones, James Guthrie & Peter Steane. Oxford: Elsevier Science, 2001.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of Defense or any U.S. Government agency.