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What’s so wicked about wicked problems?

15 May 2019



The concept of wicked problems has become a fad in contemporary policy analysis with any number of problems being labelled as “wicked”. However if these problems are analysed using a strict definition of the concept, they aren’t really wicked.

At a glance

In a paper for the journal, Policy and Society, B Guy Peters (University of Pittsburgh) presents three arguments about the high level of use, or abuse, of the concept of wicked problems.

  1. Relatively few problems facing governments are actually wicked problems in the full conceptual meaning of the term.
  2. Ordinary policy problems also have some of the characteristics attributed to wicked problems.
  3. The concept of wicked problems has taken on a normative element that was not intended by the formulators of the concept. This element is that wicked problems must be solved and can be solved through developing appropriate policies.

Where did the concept of wicked problems come from?

The concept came from the planning literature in the 1970s rather than the policy literature. While these two fields are closely linked, they also have differences. In planning, there is a strong design element when considering policy-making. Wicked problems were identified as a barrier to effective design and implementation of policies as much as a special class of problems.

What are wicked problems?

The term was used to describe emerging policy problems that did not fit neatly with the conventional models of policy analysis used at the time. These problems were seen as having:

  • multiple possible causes
  • dynamics that were not linear
  • negative consequences for society if not addressed.

Wicked problems had the following ten characteristics:

  1. Wicked problems are difficult to define. There is no definite formulation.Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  2. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
  3. There is no immediate or ultimate test for solutions.
  4. All attempts to solutions have effects that may not be reversible or forgettable.
  5. These problems have no clear solution, and perhaps not even a set of possible solutions.
  6. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.Every wicked problem may be a symptom of another problem.
  7. There are multiple explanations for the wicked problem.
  8. The planner (policy-maker) has no right to be wrong.

Thinking about wickedness

Although there are a number of difficult problems facing the public sector, these may not be wicked. Ill-defined and awkward problems are the norm for policy-making and well-defined and rational policy-making is the exception. It is easy to stretch the concept of wicked problems by assuming if a problem is difficult then it must be wicked when it doesn’t have all the characteristics of wicked problems outlined earlier.

The lack of problems that meet the full definition does not obviate the utility of the concept. There could be varying degrees and types of wickedness. For example, some difficult policy problems may be difficult to define and may have multiple frames, but may have clear measures of success.

Wickedness or complexity?

The idea of wicked problems preceded the development of complexity theories in the social sciences. These theories focus on systems and the interactions within them whether the systems are natural (climate) or human (poverty).

Like wicked problems, complexity assumes the relationship among variables is not linear. Small shifts may produce large differences in the outcomes of the system dynamics. These systems are seen as being open, involving multiple actors and can be socially and politically complex.

Are there any real wicked problems?

Some of the candidates that are advanced as wicked are climate change, poverty and inequality. These are all difficult problems that have some of the characteristics of wickedness but not all of them.
It may be better to consider the notion of complexity as a more encompassing category and wicked problems as a subset.

Solving wicked problems

There is an assumption that wicked problems must be solved by developing appropriate policies through centralised and forceful action. Defining wicked problems in this way undervalues the nature of the problems themselves and also raises questions about policy design.

While solving problems is important, governments may have to admit that many policy issues may not be solvable in any definitive manner. Decades of attempts to solve poverty, inequality and crime have ameliorated the problems but have not solved them by any meaningful standard.

Having identified problems as wicked and arguing for the importance of finding solutions, government may have created unattainable performance targets. Very few policy problems are actually ever solved in any definitive manner. Rather policy-making tends to be a more continuous process of amelioration and adjustment. Promising to solve problems, wicked or otherwise, may ultimately weaken already diminished faith in government.

Why it matters

Although the concept of wicked problems is to some extent an academic fad, there is an underlying logic. For contemporary policy-making, the concept can emphasise the difficulty in making and implementing effective solutions to policy problems. However, the existence of difficult problems should not become an excuse to stretch the concept of wicked problems so that it becomes almost meaningless.

Want to read more?

What is so wicked about wicked problems? A conceptual analysis and a research program — B Guy Peters, Policy and Society, Volume 36, 2017 — Issue 3

This brief is part of a Research Series written by Maria Katsonis. This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG’s 2019 Research Series called The Drop.

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Published Date: 15 May 2019