Wicked problems - SUMMARY

PPOL5110 – Foundations of Public Policy - Prof. M. Howlett
By Marie N. Bernal
Wicked problems in social policy planning (Rittel and Webber, 1973)
Expertise in the face of “wickedness”
“…nation’s pluralism and differentiation of values…”  differentiation of publics
Open systems and concerns for equity
Weakness in goal-formulation (p.157, 4th paragraph) and problem definition (valuative framework
vs. efficiency, is vs. ought to be)
Scientific or engineering problems vs. planning problems  Inherently wicked:
There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. “...every question asking for additional
information depends upon the understanding of the problem-and its resolution-at that time.” and “To find the
problem is thus the same thing as finding the solution; the problem can't be defined until the solution has been
found. The formulation of a wicked problem is the problem!” (p.161)
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. “...the would-be planner can always try to do better.” and “He
stops for considerations that ae external to the problem.” (p. 162)
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse. “Their judgments are
likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their
ideological predilections. (p.163)
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.” and “... no way of tracing all the waves…” (p.163)
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.
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.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. “...the higher the
level of a problem's formulation, the broader and more general it becomes: and the more difficult it becomes to
do something about it. On the other hand, one should not try to cure symptoms: and therefore, one should try to
settle the problem on as high a level as possible.” (p.162). Problem
of Incrementalism (i.e. antibiotics
vs. superbugs).
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.
10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of
the actions they generate).
Homogenous or “Mass Society” – wrong. Inter-group differences and rivalries prevent notion of
“larger public welfare. (I.e. Hospital penicillin).
Morality of operations research and management science (Churchman, 1967)
To “tame” a problem either “generate an aura of good feeling or consensus [...] OR, it consists of "carving off " a
piece of the problem and finding a rational and feasible solution to this piece.” (B-141) and let someone else tame
the untamed part. => Deceptive and morally wrong
Dishonesty in honesty
Does "inform" merely mean that we clear ourselves legally, or does it mean that we attempt to enter into a deep, mutual
understanding of the untamed aspects of the problem? (B-142).
Context (Crowley and Head, 2017)
Rittel, architect of the “wicked problem” concept, presents and teaches is ideas in the 60’s and is
quoted by Churchman in ’67.
Highly significant with higher citation count in the last decade.
Reflective of the era’s technological achievements AND social challenges in the US.
Finally published, at Webber’s behest, in ‘73.
“First generation” design methods = rigorously scientific  critique of the intellectual fallacies of
addressing wickedness through rationalist systems theory. Need for second-generation systems
thinking based on argumentative methods.
“Second generation” = emphasis on communication and feedback.
o A.Bahm (’75): who argued that “the authors found fault in the nature of social problems
rather than in professional competence, thus ‘causing these problems to become more
difficult to solve’. Social problems CAN be defined but they’re part of a larger prob and
context needs to be accounted for. “...every problem is unique, not just every wicked
problem; and that the existence of many failed ‘wicked’ solutions does not mean that a
problem cannot be solved.”
o B.Catron (’81): “...ontological for identifying the existence of wicked problems,
epistemological for challenging our ability to understand them, and ethical for questioning
our ability to act rightly in relation to them.”
By the 2000’s several scholars acknowledged the “wicked” context of social problems and designed
solution frameworks and coping strategies.
Literature today tends to pursue argumentative, deliberative, collaborative, and network-based
approaches to wicked problem solving
“Wicked” becomes mainstream in environmental policy analysis  Levin et al. “super wicked”
Recent-ish conferences:
o Proceeds support adaptive management and collaborative rationality.
o Draws connections to modern literature on governance, policy design and innovation,
implementation, and politics of crisis management.
o Support a greater focus on policy learning and greater synergies between academic and
practitioner forms of knowledge.
Implications for public management (Head and Alford, 2008)
1. Review of “wicked problems”, in line with the above pts.
a. Tech vs. social problems: multiple goals, agents and stakeholders
b. Competing frameworks, not gaps in knowledge
c. In pluralistic society – participatory and dialogue-based approaches over rational
comprehensive planning
d. Uncertainty: substantive (understanding), strategic (actors), institutional (locations, networks
or regimes).
e. Australian Public Service Commission (2007):
i. Difficult to clearly define
ii. Many interdependencies and multi-causal aspects
iii. Proposed measures may have unforeseen effects
iv. Problems may be unstable and continue evolving
v. No clear and correct solution
vi. Problems are socially complex with many stakeholders
vii. Responsibility stretches across many organisations
viii. Solutions may require behavioural changes by citizens and stakeholder groups.
f. “... although every ‘solution’ for dealing with wicked problems will necessarily be open to
further interrogation and adaptation, this is no bad thing.” (p.7)
2. Public management: How are w. problems identified, understood and managed?
a. New Public Management ‘80s in response to linear organization and control.
b. Managerialism – ‘managing for results.’ Corporate strategy thinking or Rittel and Webber’s
rational comprehensive planning.
c. Contractualism – shifts program logic chain from outcomes to outputs (as means of achieving
the outcome).
3. Challenges in: Strategy-making, organizational design, people management, and performance
a. Techniques to address it p. 14-15
4. Approaches: Systems-thinking (p.16), collaboration (joined-up government, p. 17) and mobilizing
adaptive work (p.20).
5. Significance: “Finally, it calls for a cultural shift from a risk-averse culture, built on the politics of attributing blame to
individuals for failure, towards a collective learning culture built on collaborative discussion of goals, strategies,
monitoring and adjustment of program settings as knowledge and understanding evolve and as the perspectives of
stakeholders shift over time.” (p.22)
Constraining our future selves (Levin et al., 2012)
Climate change is a “super wicked problem”:
o Time is running out – no room for compromise
o Those seeking to end the problem are also causing it – “Unlike other environmental problems with
discrete antagonists and protagonists, human-induced climate change results from individual and collective
activities at multiple scales, as well as marketplace activities.” (p.127)
o No central authority – “... different circumstances, but also across different economic sectors and policy
subsystems at mul- tiple political levels.” (p.128)
o Policies discount the future irrationally – shortsighted focus – “... individuals must ‘‘lock-in’’ longterm preferences so that, as the future nears, they cannot revert to their short-term calculus.” (p.128)
Nurture a policy process in which our long-term interests gain sway over our short-term interests
1. What can be done to create stickiness making reversibility immediately difficult?
2. What can be done to entrench support over time?
3. What can be done to expand the population that supports the policy?
Applied forward reasoning: “...identify possible policy interventions and reason forward to how the problem and
interventions might unfold over time.” (p. 130)
Analytic framework for wicked problems: “... what path- dependent causal processes respond to the three
diagnostic questions, and what actions might trigger them?” (p.131)
Policy development
4 Path-dependent processes (independent or intersecting):
o Lock-in: provides immediate durability
o Self-reinforcing: costs of reversing rise over time
o Increasing returns: benefits increase over time
o Positive feedback: expanding populations and reinforcing original support
New analytic framework applied to climate change “super wickedness”
Works cited and reviewed
Bahm, A. J. (1975). Planners’ failure generates a scapegoat. Policy Sciences, 6, 103–105
Catron, B. L. (1981). On taming wicked problems. Dialogue, 3(3), 13–16
Churchman, C. W. (1967) ‘Wicked Problems’, Management Science, 14(4), pp. B141–B142.
Crowley, K. and Head, B. W. (2017) ‘The enduring challenge of “wicked problems”: revisiting Rittel and
Webber’, Policy Sciences. Springer US, 50(4), pp. 539–547. doi: 10.1007/s11077-017-9302-4.
Head, B. and Alford, J. (2008) ‘Wicked problems: The implications for public management’, … to Panel on
Public Management in …, (December 2016). Available at:
http://www.irspm2008.bus.qut.edu.au/papers/documents/pdf2/Head - Wicked Problems HeadAlford Final
Levin, K. et al. (2012) ‘Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: Constraining our future selves to
ameliorate global climate change’, Policy Sciences, 45(2), pp. 123–152. doi: 10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0.
Rittel, H. W. J. and Webber, M. M. (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences,
4(2), pp. 155–169. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4531523.
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