Policy & Society: What Is so Wicked About Wicked Problems?

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July 2, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: July 2 on

A conceptual analysis and a research program.

Abstract – The concept of wicked problems has become a fad in contemporary policy analysis, with any number of problems being labeled as “wicked”. However, if many of these problems are analyzed using a strict definition of the concept they do not meet the criteria. Building on this analysis, I have developed a research program to investigate the extent to which even those problems usually thought to be wicked are actually that difficult.

Much of our discussion of policy problems, and the policy-making designed to ameliorate those problems, is based on functional or instrumental conceptions of the policy. We talk about social welfare issues or defense issues, or alternatively we talk about regulatory policy issues or issues of grants and subsidies. We Peters and Hoornbeek (2005 Peters, B. G., & Hoornbeek, J. (2005). The problem of policy problems. In P. Eliadis, M. Hill, & M. Howlett (Eds.), Designing government (pp. 77–105). Montreal: McGill/Queens University Press. [Google Scholar]); (see also Hoornbeek, this issue) have argued in the past that policy analysis can make more progress by examining the underlying analytic dimensions of policies, rather than the familiar functional categories. In the earlier paper we examined a number of those underlying dimensions such as scale, divisibility and monetization, and in this paper I will extend the analysis to examine the concept of ‘wicked problems’.

The concept of wicked problems was developed in the planning literature (Rittel & Webber, 1973 Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in the general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.10.1007/BF01405730 [Google Scholar]) to describe emerging policy problems that did not correspond neatly to the conventional models of policy analysis used at the time. The argument in this paper was that the relatively easy policy issues had been addressed, and the future would be more demanding. These emerging problems were defined as complex, involving multiple possible causes and internal dynamics that could not assumed to be linear, and have very negative consequences for society if not addressed properly. The difficulty, rather obviously was, how could the policy analyst and his or her government know ex ante what an adequate solution to these problems might be?

The recognition of the existence of wicked problems was to some extent a precursor to the development of complexity theories in the social sciences (see Klijn & Snellen, 2009 Klijn, E.-H., & Snellen, I. (2009). Complexity theory and public administration: A critical appraisal. In G. Teisman, A. van Buuren, & L. Gerrits (Eds.), Managing complex governance systems (pp. 87–104). London: Routledge. [Google Scholar]; Peters, Galaz, & Pierre, in press Peters, B. G., Galaz, V., Pierre, J. (in press). Simple answers for complex problems? In V. Galaz (Ed.), Handbook of complexity and governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. [Google Scholar]; Room, 2011 Room, G. (2011). Complexity, institutions and public policy: Agile decision-making in a turbulent world. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.10.4337/9780857932648 [Google Scholar]). Complexity theories tend to focus on systems and the interactions within them. Those systems may be natural (climate) or they may be primarily human (poverty) Like wicked problems, complexity assumes that the relationships among variables are not linear and small shifts (especially in the initial conditions) may produce large differences in the outcomes of the systemic dynamics. These systems are also conceptualized as being open, allowing influences from the outside, including the importation of energy. And finally complex systems tend to involve multiple actors whether as causes or actors or both –, and therefore can be politically complex as well as being technically complex.

It is difficult to deny that policy-makers now face an array of difficult and complex policy problems, even more than those emerging as Rittel and Webber were first discussing wicked problems. It appears, however, that describing these policy problems as wicked problems has become a fad in the academic literature. Almost any problem that is difficult to solve and which has a variety of alternative causes, or alternative policy frames, has been described as a wicked problem. In this paper I will be making three arguments about this high level of use, or abuse, of the concept of wicked problems.

The paper continues on to discuss the concept and characteristics of “wicked problems” and “super wicked problems,” thinking about and conceptualizing wicked problems, differences between merely complex and wicked problems, and research done in attempting to understand how policy-makers and other experts think about wicked problems, and policy problems more generally.