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Seven strategies for wicked problems

6 April 2022



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Wicked problems are often seen as complex, open-ended and intractable. A new e-book by Brian Head, Wicked Problems in Public Policy, examines how wicked problems are identified, understood and managed. One of the chapters discusses the strategies used by democratic governments in managing policy challenges and responding to contested issues. 

Wicked problems and leadership

Wicked problems are managed politically. Leaders may choose to avoid or downplay the tough issues, or they may redefine the issues to align with their existing agendas and impose their own solutions. They may choose to take relatively familiar pathways of policy adjustment seek new ways to tackle uncertainties and manage conflicts.

In considering the available strategic choices, government leaders will not only assess the perceived threats, but also take account of their own political obligations to their parties, stakeholders and supporters. They bring to the table their own leadership style and tactical preferences.

Government responses to wicked problems—seven strategies

The chapter outlines seven strategies for responding to wicked problems:

  • avoidance and denial
  • authoritative coercive controls
  • micro-management of problem elements
  • technocratic problem-solving,
  • incremental adjustment
  • stakeholder collaboration
  • coping strategies.

These strategies should not be seen as stand-alone. In practice, they will tend to overlap.

1. Avoidance and denial

A common response to complex problems and emerging threats is simply to deny their significance. The capacity to ignore information and to deflect attention from a potential issue is a form of power. 

When government leaders lack the organisational capacity and political will to tackle these issues, they may decide to take symbolic actions. In doing so, they might explicitly acknowledge the problem, but offer only a gesture. These interventions address the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

2. Coercion

This response to emerging problem is almost the opposite of avoidance. Government leaders might impose decisive solutions to manage crises that need forceful and rapid responses. It is common in the face of disasters, emergencies and perceived security threats. Leaders play a large part in articulating the nature of the challenge and the type of response required.

3. Compartmentalised micro-management

In both politics and scientific inquiry, it is common for large problems to be analysed in small pieces rather than in their totality as complex systems. The intent is to identify bite-size chunks that can be more easily managed.

Complex problems can be intimidating and difficult to grasp. In policy analysis and practice, it is genuinely difficult to select the appropriate level of analysis and action. There is a tendency to focus on one visible symptom of a significant problem instead of searching to address the underlying causes.

4. Technocratic problem-solving

The quest for rational and elegant solutions to problems, based on science and logic, has been a constant theme in policymaking. The emergence of evidence-based policy advocates policy based on rigorous knowledge, systematic data, analysis and evaluation.

However wicked problems cannot be managed by technical experts alone. They have to be managed politically, not just by scientific and professional experts. In practice, experts provide advice but are rarely granted authority to make public decisions. Ministerial oversight and accountability generally prevail. 

5. Incremental adjustment

This sees the policy-making process, with its many checks and balances and opportunities for correction, as ‘muddling through’. It enables adjustment among competing interests and policy making is therefore about settlement, reconciliation and agreements.

This is an adaptive approach, consistent with making iteration and ‘learning by doing’ at a manageable scale. It is very different from attempting wholesale and comprehensive policy transformation:

6. Stakeholder collaboration

Government leaders sometimes choose to tackle problems through a consultative approach incorporating stakeholder engagement and participation. This will be influenced by such factors as political leadership styles, the perceived capacities of stakeholder network, and the nature of the policy challenges.

There are several levels of working together—networking, cooperating, coordinating and collaborating. Each may be better suited for specific issues and challenges.

7. Coping and prevention policies

Wicked problems are characterised by lack of agreement about the problem itself and about effective policy responses. Tackling large problems through a long-term strategic approach may require a new paradigm. Prevention is a policy paradigm that directs attention to underlying causes of potential harm.

The bottom line

Government leaders have a range of possible responses in tackling wicked problems. On some occasions, leaders retreat into various forms of avoidance or denial. When crisis is involved, policy responses typically involve centrally imposed executive decisions. However, for many difficult social problems, the processes for policy development usually work towards incremental adjustments, informed by the contributions of stakeholders, managers and experts.

Want to read more?

Political Governance of Wicked Problems – Brian Head, Wicked Problems in Public Policy, January 2022

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Published Date: 6 April 2022