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date: 17 August 2017

Policy Problems

Summary and Keywords

We frequently employ analogies such as a leaking roof or finishing last in a ranking to illustrate that there is a serious problem requiring attention. Unfortunately, policy realities are far more complex and less obvious since policymakers do not benefit from objective measures or clear signals akin to having water dripping over their head to indicate the presence of a problem. In fact, they face a plethora of policy actors constantly engaged in defining policy problems for them based on competing frames of references.

The term “policy problems” evokes questions of what makes a social issue a policy problem, but it also raises questions regarding whether problems can actually be solved via a public response and how. Policy problems occupy a crucial role in policy studies, if not for the simple reason that political authorities are unlikely to alter or create policies without the presence of problems. As such, policy problems occupy an important place in popular theoretical frameworks frequently employed in the field of public policy. The formulation of policy problems is at the heart of the punctuated-equilibrium theory since these can result in the creation of new political coalitions seeking transformative policy change. In the social construction of target populations approach, the ways in which the public perceives particular subgroups or subpopulations dictate our understanding of policy problems and the types of instruments to deploy. Frameworks for policy feedback assume that current policies structure the formulation of policy problems along the lines of altering existing policies. In the multiple-streams theoretical framework, policy problems are part of a toolkit used to validate the use of already made solutions by policy entrepreneurs seeking the right opportunity for implementation.

A thorough treatment and analysis of policy problems exist within the policy design literature. Scholars operating within this tradition have emphasized the individual characteristics of policy problems and, as importantly, how these matter when it is time to enact solutions. Characteristics of problems, such as causality and severity, are key elements in the identification and formulation of policy problems and their likelihood to feature prominently in the policy agenda of governmental actors. Additional elements, such as the divisibility of policy problems and the extent to which these problems can be monetarized, matter in assessing the possibility of enacting solutions.

This raises the fundamental question of whether policy problems can actually be resolved. Mature policies are the norm in industrialized countries, and these are increasingly subject to international agreements. Consequently, there are, for example, many more interdependencies, which have led to the reemergence of wicked-problems analyses. However, a substantial number of contributions have associated complexity with wicked problems, raising questions surrounding their intrinsic qualities and the danger of conceptual stretching.

Keywords: agenda setting, complexity, policy design, problem formulation, policy process, wicked problems


Standard definitions of public policy typically address whether or not governmental authorities opt to act upon a specific issue, why, and how. Within this context, policy problems are at the heart of policy studies since governments are unlikely to change course or address an issue unless a problem is first identified. This implies that policy actors, such as interest groups, elected officials, and civil servants, must demonstrate the existence of some sort of problems to attract the attention of governmental authorities needed to create a new policy or change an existing one.

The term “policy problems” evokes questions of what makes a social issue a policy problem and if problems can actually be solved through a public response and how. Although we employ analogies such as a leaking roof or finishing last in a ranking to illustrate that there is a serious problem requiring attention, policy realities are far more complex and less obvious. Problems are actually not discovered; rather, they are defined by policy actors based on competing frames of reference (Dery, 1984, p. 4). For example, there is no standing operating procedure or guide to identify at what point inequality, in its multiple forms, becomes a problem and what can and should be done to address it. Even when there is a broad consensus on the need to address a specific issue, such as poverty and cancer (Schulman, 1980), public authorities may not be in a position to resolve these issues despite investing additional time and resources.

This article seeks to illuminate the debates and issues surrounding the concept of policy problems. To facilitate this undertaking, it features an analytical division between two sets of complementary literatures on policymaking and policy design. The first section studies the presence of policy problems and the utilization of this concept across popular theoretical frameworks of the policy process. The second section, rooted in agenda setting, tackles problem formulation. The last two sections engage with the policy design literature. The third section explores distinctive characteristics of policy problems, while the last section reviews the revival of complexity to analyze policy problems and the resurgence of wicked problems in the policy literature.

Policy Problems in Common Public Policy Approaches

Five popular theoretical frameworks of the policy process employ policy problems in their analyses: punctuated equilibrium, policy feedback, social construction, multiple streams, and learning from abroad. As will be illustrated, the concept of policy problems takes on not only different characteristics, but also different roles on the path to policy change.

Punctuated Equilibrium

The punctuated equilibrium theory aims to account for the stasis and crisis pattern, the latter resulting in highly noticeable policy change, observed across a wide range of public policies in the United States, then elsewhere (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993). As such, it challenges findings depicting policy change as a succession of incremental modifications, based most notably on Lindblom’s famous article on the science of “muddling through” (Lindblom, 1959). The punctuated-equilibrium theory claims that political institutions, interest mobilizations, and bounded rational decision making explains the presence of spike and valley trajectories (True et al., 2007).

The emphasis is not on the nature of the problem, something considered highly important in the policy design literature (see below), but rather on the presence and predominance of a problem within the public sphere. The analyses target primarily policy actors coalesced within a policy monopoly and potential challenges to this monopoly, which can eventually result in transformative change. The formulation of policy problems plays a crucial role in this model since these problems are at the origin of changes in policy attention (Jones, 1994) or in preferences (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993) among policymakers.

The identification of policy problems and their increasing intensity in multiple public spheres matter greatly since it is a “precondition for major policy punctuations” (True et al., 2007). The identification will likely occur through the introduction of a “new” or reformed policy image, defined broadly as a “mixture of empirical information and emotive appeal” (p. 161), to challenge the dominant policy image (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993). This explains why adopters of this theoretical framework investigate policy attention through various forms of media, such as newspapers or television, and other forms of communication such as throne speeches or coalition agreements. There are, after all, countless problems in the public sphere, and not all of them receive close scrutiny. The more attention a problem attracts, regardless of its merit, the more likely actions will take place since it increasingly gathers public attention to the point where political authorities can no longer avoid it.

Policy Feedback

Policymakers rarely deal with issues that do not already have policies in place or that will most likely impact other policies (Hogwood & Peters, 1982; Rose, 1990). Rooted in the argument that “policy creates politics” (Lowi, 1972), the policy feedback literature states that many policies exhibit reinforcing processes that structure the political environment, making it difficult for alternatives to emerge (Pierson, 1993, 2000). This theoretical framework has been popular among scholars studying pension policies, which feature growing expectations for benefits, and opposition for reforms, with each year of contributions (Béland, 2010). Potential reformers face well-organized interest groups that were formed as a result of the policy creation (Hogwood & Peters, 1982; Pierson, 1994).

With regard to the analysis of policy problems within this theoretical framework, it is imperative to differentiate between positive and negative feedbacks. Positive feedback implies a reinforcement mechanism whereby policies are modified at the margins and become increasingly stable over time since the costs of reversal increase through time (Pierson, 2000). As the policy matures, policy reforms become more unlikely even in the presence of strong political forces committed to alter policies or well-known problems associated with the policy path chosen previously.

In stark opposition, negative feedbacks assume that a faulty policy design results in the inability to sustain a policy, hence triggering a change (Weaver, 2010). In this case, the policy contains the seeds of its own destruction, which results in widely acknowledged policy problems by a wide coalition of policy actors, including beneficiaries. Hence, in both cases of policy feedbacks, the structure of the policy matters more than the actual presence or recognition of an alternative policy problem by decision makers; the structure actually defines policy problems.

Social Construction

As in the punctuated equilibrium framework, social constructivists acknowledge that there are multiple policy problems competing with one another. By challenging the objectivity behind the identification of policy problems and their potential solutions, social constructivists point first and foremost to the context within which problems are formulated (Bacchi, 1999; Schneider & Ingram, 1993). As Bacchi (1999) maintains, “problems are often constituted differently due to location specific, institution-specific and history-specific factors” (p. 7). For example, according to a study on the governance of problems, current political structures prioritize “problem solving” over understanding competing problem representations within their decision-making process. This results in a disconnect between citizens and civil servants implementing solutions (Hoppe, 2010).

The study of policy problems is rooted in an understanding of competing problem representations (Bacchi, 1999) or frames (Schön & Rein, 1994) where different kinds of truths or knowledge collide. As such, social constructivists provide an explanation as to the underlying causes of acceptable problems and solutions (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994, p. 6). Power relationships play a predominant role in determining which frame or problem representation is acceptable. For example, the social construction of target populations structures the formulation of policy problems. Groups portrayed negatively and without strong political resources, such as the homeless or drug users, face conditions that are likely to accentuate the importance of the societal problems they cause, resulting in highly punitive policy instruments that overburden them (Schneider & Ingram, 1993).

Multiple Streams

The multiple streams approach assumes that the policy process is ambiguous in an environment where solutions are searching for problems. Problems constitute one of the three independent streams along with policies and politics in Kingdon’s (2003) famous health and transportation studies. As such, the problem stream plays a crucial role in explaining policy change since the convergence of the three streams is an important requisite to enacting policy change. It is not sufficient, however, as both problem and politics streams necessitate a policy window while the policy stream needs a policy entrepreneur (Zahariadis, 2007).

Interestingly, Kingdon (2003) pointedly distinguishes between conditions, which are in abundance every day, and problems. Key to his study is the transformation of conditions into recognizable problems. There are many ways to achieve this transformation, such as having conditions running counter to important values, receiving a ranking where a condition fares poorly vis-à-vis another regional authority or country, or altering the conceptual frame within which one studies a condition. With regard to the last named, Kingdon stresses how having adequate transportation for individuals with disabilities will be treated differently if it is considered a human rights, as opposed to an accessibility, issue (p. 198).

For Kingdon (2003), problems are not “policy problems” since he clearly distinguishes between policy and problem streams, which he treats as independent entities. However, this assumption has come under criticism recently in a study on violence prevention demonstrating that participants overlap both problem and policy streams (Robinson & Eller, 2010). This criticism suggests that concerns over “policy problems” occur early in the agenda-setting process.

Learning from Abroad

A common critique of policy process theories is their marginal treatment of factors originating from abroad (Orenstein, 2008). The literature on policy diffusion and policy transfer stress, among its key variables, the rising importance of international exchanges in assessing and comparing various policies. International organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU), are generating countless comparative studies that can reveal substantial differences in policy outcomes. These public reports can in turn result in the creation of a policy problem combined with the promotion of a solution advocated by international organizations that often actively influence the direction of policy debates (de la Porte et al., 2001; Mahon & McBride, 2009; Stone 2004).

Beyond international organizations, the policy transfer and lesson-drawing literature pre-supposes a more independent role for nation-states. In these studies, a key motivation for national policymakers is finding a solution to a policy problem when internal solutions prove unsatisfactory. This is quite common since countries experience similar policy problems (Rose, 1991, p. 4). The primary focus is not on defining a policy problem, but rather on establishing the “true” origin of policy adoption (Bennett, 1997), which can also involve an analysis of a transfer agent and its actions to identify clearly the policy problem of the receiving country (Evans & Davies, 1999). Once the adoption process is engaged, the cultural and political context within which the transfer occurs may alter the appropriateness and effectiveness of the original solution. It may even lead to additional problems or a subpar solution. A clear example relates to the final adoption of the latest Norwegian pension reform, inspired by the Swedish reform of 1998, which has been labeled a “half hearted copy of a brutal original” (Pedersen, 2004).

This brief overview of policy process theories demonstrates the extent to which policy problems occupy an important analytical place regardless of its conceptualization. In the policy feedback literature, policies are at the origin of problem formulation. The construction and reconstruction of policy problems serve as mobilizing tools that may result in a transformation of policies in both the social construction and punctuated-equilibrium theories. This process can involve transnational actors and a search for solutions abroad. Finally, policy problems are floating around, awaiting the arrival of policy entrepreneurs and moments of crisis to trigger already made solutions in the multiple-stream theoretical framework.

Problem Definition: Agenda Setting

As noted earlier, the ways in which an issue or controversy makes it to the public agenda has a tremendous impact on how policy problems will be formulated. Hence, it is not surprising to find that early studies on policy problems devoted significant attention to problem definition (Bosso, 1994; Dery, 1984; Weiss, 1989). Beyond comprehending the origins of policy problems, this focus is all the more warranted since “policy analysts fail more often because they formulate the wrong problem than because they choose the wrong solution” (Dunn, 1988).

What is problem definition? The standard beginning of most discussion on the topic involves the formulation presented by Dery (1984) in his book Problem Definition in Policy Analysis. Succinctly, problem definition refers to what is feasible. It “is a medium through which we discover what we realistically want and how we may go about obtaining it, and not merely an indication that certain means are inadequate to serve a given goal” (p. 9). The focus on solutions aligned with goals and objectives is compelling, but it fails to acknowledge the simple fact that the policy process may move forward and even produce legislation in the absence of an agreement on problem definition (Weiss, 1989). As such, it neglects potential dimensions of the agenda-setting process, where competing understandings of a problem will emerge, and it pushes aside problems that may not have clear (feasible) solutions available. Herein lies the advantage of focusing distinctively on the agenda setting and the policy design literature. In the former case, the analytical focus is on the ongoing political battle to define, reshape, or even create policy problems. The various dimensions relate to the propensity of a problem to reach the public agenda. The complementary literature on policy design analyzes policy problems with the objective of identifying elements that, at the very least, should be considered when selecting the proper instruments (Linder & Peters, 1984; Peters, 2015b).

To emphasize the significant contribution of both agenda-setting and policy design literature, this article relies on Hogwood and Gunn’s (1984, p. 109) definition. Problem definition is the process “by which an issue (problem, opportunity, or trend), having been recognized as such and placed on the public policy agenda, is perceived by various interested parties; further explored, articulated, and possible quantified; and in some but not all cases, given an authoritative or at least provisionally acceptable definition in terms of its likely causes, components, and consequences” (cf. Rochefort & Cobb, 1993, p. 57). This definition has the advantage of altering the discussion toward the importance of recognizing and identifying problems, which is a necessary condition for their acknowledgment within the political process (Peters, 2005, p. 353).

Following the problem definition dimensions identified by Rochefort and Cobbs (1993, 1994), who were inspired by constructivist and social conflict studies, this section review core dimensions shaping how policy problems are defined. These dimensions are causality, severity, incidence, novelty, proximity, and problem populations. While Rochefort and Cobbs studied two additional dimensions (means to an end and the nature of the solution), these two dimensions are ignored here largely because the subsequent section of this article focuses on solutions. This section and the following one on solutions frequently employ policy problems linked to aging populations to tease out the nuances and importance of the characteristics linked to agenda setting and solutions. This has the additional benefit of complementing the examples of water pollution and environmental problems (Peters & Hoornbeek, 2005) and, subsequently, the use of social policy in the European Union (Peters, 2005).


Intuitively, the first step in resolving any problem is to identify the source. However, social realities are complex, making it challenging to obtain and even sustain a common causal understanding of a policy problem. There is simply no point throughout the policy process where competing alternatives simply disappear even when new realities emerge (Weiss, 1989). The causes behind slower economic growth in industrialized countries represent a good example where there are no shortages of culprits. Competing causal explanations are based on the political orientation of a government, fashionable ideas and international events to name a few. Is the government intervening too much, not enough? Is globalization a source of opportunity or decline? Population aging is one of the latest causes to become prominent in public debates. In the past decade, a growing number of studies, led by the OECD, have studied how an aging population can stifle economic growth (OECD, 1999, 2000).

Even when a common understanding of the causal relationship is established, different attributions can drastically change the nature of political conflicts, depending on whether public officials blame a specific group or broader social causes (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994). Issues surrounding an aging population are susceptible to attributions because so little can be done in the short to medium term to alleviate a nation’s demographic structure. Seniors represent a prime example, having moved from being highly vulnerable and in need of compassion to being powerful and “greedy” (Binstock, 2010). Attributions influence political dynamics; conflicts are forthcoming, if not sought, when politicians refer to older adults as “greedy geezers” rather than framing policy challenges as a result of broad demographic forces.

Attribution issues also relate to policy areas. The media or traditional administrative practices may equate a particular problem or a population with a specific department. Subsequently, this will influence both problem definition and, eventually, the solutions proposed (Egeberg, 1999). For example, despite older adults experiencing longer and healthier lives, it remains a challenge to dissociate aging and health policies and promote different kinds of policies for this population (Clarke et al., 2003; Estes & Binney, 1989). This association between aging and health is felt in other areas such as nursing care (Koch & Webb, 1996) and social services (Binney et al., 1990) where the health care model continues to dominate.


Severity consists of determining not only how serious a problem is, but also what consequences will likely occur if no solution is undertaken. References to crises are often employed to describe the severity of a situation and the necessity to intervene immediately. In some cases, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and overcrowded emergency rooms, the severity of a problem and its labeling as a crisis may be obvious. For other less sensational issues, what constitutes a severe problem is open for debate, with the “discovery” of severity involving long-standing battles to secure acknowledgment of the media, the public, and decision makers.

Population aging provides a good illustration of the challenges involved in defining an issue as a severe problem by seeking to define it as a (potential) crisis. There is a broad consensus that the current demographic shift will affect many programs and policies; however, the extent to which it will trigger debates over their equity across generations and their overall sustainability is hotly disputed. On one hand, population aging is depicted as a “shark jaw” (Ervik & Lindén, 2015) or as causing a “generational storm” (Kotlikoff & Burns, 2005). In these scenarios, public expenditures are bound to explode, leaving massive debts and a crumbling economy to future generations unless drastic actions are taken (Kotlikoff & Burns, 2012). On the other hand, analyses describing tsunamis and storms are criticized as “apocalyptic demography” (Gee & Gutman, 2000) since policy prescriptions are far removed from the diagnosis established in many policy studies.


The incidence of a policy problem also affects its coverage and place within public debates. For the vast majority of policy problems, the aim is to reduce the incidence of unwanted conditions or events, such as cancer, elder abuse, environmental disasters, and poverty. Discussions of incidence quickly spill over into risk assessment and how to interpret and use this assessment. There are at least two kinds of incidence: one is based on the frequency with which a problem occurs, and the other relates to the prevalence of policy problems within a specific segment of society (Rochefort & Cobb, 1993, pp. 64–65). First, interpreting incidence as frequency involves asking whether this is an omnipresent problem or one that comes and goes. Occasional flooding or natural disasters receive a different treatment than gun violence. The challenges related to population aging also follow an unusual pattern since policy problems and opportunities are likely to correlate strongly with the life cycle of the major population cohort, the baby boomers (Foot & Stoffman, 1996). There is, however, no direct correlation between the rising (or declining) occurrence of events, such as gun violence, and political responses since there is a disconnect between actual changes across a wide range of events and population perceptions (Neuman et al., 2014).

Second, interpreting incidence as the prevalence of a policy problem in relation to specific segments of society involves recognizing that a problem may affect one subpopulation more than another. In this context, incidence may play a key role in problem definition. For example, it matters whether it is consistently the same people having to rely on social assistance or different people at a specific point in time (Goodin, 1999). In the former case, these individuals are likely to resent the socioeconomic structure responsible for this outcome, and the public is more likely to peg them as a deviant group (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). If a visible minority consistently experiences social assistance, this problem can also quickly coalesce with broader social problems related to citizenship and integration and fuel resentment toward public authorities (Quadagno, 1994).


Rochefort and Cobb (1993, 1994) stress that novelty facilitates the capture of media attention and policymakers in general. However, the key is to sustain attention over time, which may represent a challenge if the issue is too abstract or proves difficult to refer to familiar solutions (p. 64). It is important, at least analytically, to distinguish clearly between the novelty of a policy issue in the public sphere, including the mass media, versus its novelty within official circles, composed of senior officials and policymakers. For example, the consequences of population aging have been on the radar of public officials for a very long time, featuring in many reports. However, it is the ongoing retirement of baby boomers that has made this a more visible policy issue, which now lies on the public agenda.


Proximity can refer to time, place, and a person’s interest. The place of time in policy studies has garnered increasing attention. Pressing the need to reform a popular program, such as Social Security, will garner far less resistance if the adjustment costs are pushed far onto the future (Pierson, 1994). It can also trigger the opposite outcome if governmental authorities are passive in the face of what is increasingly perceived as an up-and-coming issue. This would be the case, for example, for many groups promoting private alternatives to resolve (potential) intergenerational inequities because public authorities lack the will to enact unpopular reforms (Emery et al., 2012).

The geographical dimension of proximity can also have a strong influence on how a problem appears on the public agenda and how it is eventually addressed. There are many policy issues that enjoy broad support but require infrastructure or relocation that have a highly negative and concentrated effect, often labeled as “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) problems (Rasmussen, 1992). Finally, a person’s interest can have a similar proximity effect if it “hits close to home” (Rochefort & Cobb, 1993, pp. 65–66). This results in some issues having a strong constituency, which is frequently expressed politically. For example, patients’ group could challenge the dominance of the medical professions, which usually operate from a clinical perspective often at the expense of a social viewpoint (Biklen, 1988).

Problem Populations

This dimension refers directly to the work of Schneider and Ingram (1990, 1993, 1997) on the social construction of target populations and its influence on the selection of policy instruments. In line with the other dimensions and their relationship to agenda setting, the use of policy problems will vary significantly depending on the population responsible for said problems. Schneider and Ingram (1993) argue that both power and social constructions interact to solidify how policymakers perceive individual groups and, as importantly, how to respond to the societal problems they cause. For example, the weakest group are the deviants, such as drug addicts and prisoners, who face a negative social construction combined with weak political power. As a result, the selection of policy instrument is likely to be punitive and accentuate this status. Interestingly in this case, it is not a policy problem per se that justifies the inclusion of an issue on the public agenda, but rather the actions of a specific group and the (perceived) problems they cause.

Interestingly, a population can shift onto another category either by gaining more political power or by slowly benefiting from a more positive social construction. The status of older adults benefited not only from the rising importance of interest groups such as AARP, but also from their increasing willingness to participate in political debates and elections (Campbell, 2003). This rise in political power has come with an increasingly negative social construction, most notably in the United States. As illustrated by Binstock (2010), the politics surrounding seniors has shifted from compassionate ageism to intergenerational conflicts. The acceptance of midwifery and its eventual integration into the medical profession in Ontario (Marier et al., 2014) also represents an example of a group succeeding in altering its negative social construction.

Designing Solutions for Policy Problems

Complementary to focusing on policy problems is studying them in relation to the design of solutions. As the heading of this section indicates, this discussion is strongly embedded in the policy design literature, with a primary focus on the instruments public authorities use to tackle policy problems (Eliadis et al., 2005; Hood, 1986; Linder & Peters, 1984). This tradition in policy studies engages primarily with the programmatic elements of a policy, as opposed to its process (Linder & Peters, 1984; McConnell, 2010, p. 5).

With regard to policy design, the aim of classifying policy problems is to identify more clearly the circumstances under which governments can intervene and with which instruments. This section builds on Peters’s (2005) article on policy problems, which introduces two different sets of characteristics. The first set studies problems in their own right, but with the objective of identifying how they shape instrument selection, resulting in three distinct characteristics: solubility, complexity, and scale. The second set targets specific attributes influencing the selection of instruments, such as divisibility, monetarization, scope, and interdependence.


By far the most important question for any policymakers aiming to address a policy problem is whether or not a solution exists. Beyond existence, the solution should be affordable, available, and acceptable across a wide range of policy actors if one hopes to enact it. In the event of a negative answer to these criteria, the issue is unlikely to move beyond the agenda-setting stage. It is with these constraints in mind that the first wave of contributions on policy problems stressed that governmental authorities could not seriously consider problems unless solutions were possible (Dery, 1984; Wildavsky, 1979). Other contributions took this further by emphasizing that it is nearly impossible to separate problems from solutions since policy actors are consistently attempting to find the right opportunity, or policy windows, to ensure the adoption of their solutions (Kingdon, 2003). A recent article even claims that policy instruments benefit from clienteles eager to pounce on policy problems where the instrument of their choice could be deployed (Béland & Howlett, 2016).

Hardly any policy problem can be fully resolved. As noted, the creation of a policy alters the politics surrounding a problem and may even generate additional problems, but there are also intrinsic qualities that may prevent solutions from emerging. Poverty is a prime example. Beyond the traditional complexities related to the labor market and social conditions, poverty is a relative concept where groups of individuals possess less resources and power than others. Thus, poverty remains regardless of governmental actions.

The real question, then, is to what extent can a government attenuate the difficulties linked to a policy problem and, as stressed by Peters (2005), how durable are the solutions? Durability is linked not only to the nature of the problem, but also to the political environment (p. 357). Some political issues are, for example, highly polarizing and vulnerable to changes in governments, such as social assistance programs (Dufour et al., 2003).


Policy problems are becoming increasingly complex both programmatically and politically (Peters, 2005, pp. 358–360). Political complexity involves tackling multiple veto points (Immergut, 1992) and veto players (Tsebelis, 2002) throughout the legislative process. Even with technical policies issues, once considered less likely to face political interference (Putnam, 1977), the expertise of technical professionals and governmental decisions based on them are facing increasing scrutiny (Callon et al., 2001). Programmatic complexity refers to the difficulties associated with the enactment and implementation of specific instruments or design. This involves, for example, the technical content, the interdependencies of policies, and prediction of future and financial constraints.


The question of scale, first tackled by Schulman (1980) to illustrate the fact that governments must sometime go “all in” to tackle a policy problem and draw upon extraordinary resources, implies that some problems cannot disintegrate onto smaller components; they are simply indivisible (pp. 7–10). For example, the U.S. government could not create NASA and secure a policy success unless it landed a man on the moon (Schulman, 1980). Going halfway was never an option. The notion of scale applies not only to major ventures that can turn horribly wrong for governments (Hall, 1980), but also to broad societal problems such as moving beyond apartheid (Wilson, 2001), and tackling poverty and racism (Quadagno, 1994). These are enormous challenges that require extraordinary means and commitments to achieve noticeable results. Tackling large-scale problems necessitates special organizations or procedures to cut across coordination issues, a long-lasting political commitment to fend off traditional policy actors, and a strong mobilization of support within the population (Schulman, 1980).

The ongoing demographic shift raises similar questions for public authorities. There are multiple policy issues surrounding policies for an aging society (OECD, 1999), but there are also societal issues regarding prevention of a growing divide across generations. The sheer magnitude of policies that may be affected by population aging makes it difficult to treat each individual policy issue affected by the demographic shift as a single entity. For example, while health and social services authorities are increasingly targeting family members to compensate for the lack of governmental support, employment departments are targeting the same individuals, mostly women, to increase labor participation rates. This problem is akin to what economists refer to as a “lumpy” good (Hardin, 1982) since the introduction of various targeted measures is likely to receive broader support than a more efficient solution, such as raising taxes substantially to finance the hiring of additional support workers, which is a diffuse and far less visible benefit.

As in the original Peters (2005) article, the following four characteristics—divisibility, monetarization, scope of activities, and interdependencies—relate to the selection of instruments and how they matter in the implementation process.


Divisibility refers broadly to the circumstances under which government should intervene and its distributive impact. In line with Peters’s description (2005), this term refers more to the kind of tools needed to solve an issue than to the disaggregation of a policy problem. This concept features questions such as how are governmental authorities going to raise the necessary revenues to finance a program; who is eligible to receive support; should the private sector be encouraged instead of being replaced; and which societal group ultimately benefits from the selection of one particular instrument over another? When considering the selection of a policy instrument, these choices can ultimately have important socioeconomic consequences and raise the question as to whether or not solutions to a problem generate diffused or concentrated costs and benefits. All these questions have in fact been debated at length within the comparative welfare state literature where the low level of generosity of the U.S. welfare state has been, for example, attributed to its love affairs with the tax credit, a policy tool that is highly visible and popular for claimants, but one that has not been conducive to redistributing wealth to the least fortunate (Howard, 2007). The perception of receiving a disproportionate amount of benefits can also help trigger a political backlash, as is the case with social assistance where the visibility of the transfer adds to an already negative social construction (Schneider & Ingram, 1993). This scenario stands in contrast to Sweden, whose revenue-generating capacities with limited avenues to escape taxation have favored the development of a universal welfare state (Steinmo, 1993).

Still, the eventual impacts of policy tools remain difficult to comprehend because the environment within which they operate is constantly changing. For example, the creation of a pay-as-you pension system made a lot of sense in the aftermath of the economic crisis of 1929, but less so today when adjustments are needed for many schemes owing to increases in life expectancy, low birth rates, and low economic growth. With demographic changes and lower rates of economic growth not envisioned when pay-go programs were first implemented, these programs have become a popular target to illustrate different redistributions of benefits across age cohorts (Kotlikoff & Burns, 2005).


Money represents a fungible resource at the disposition of public authorities. It raises the question as to whether a policy problem can (simply) be resolved by providing financial support in the form of redistributing money, co-financing an activity, or even offering cash incentives. Some problems are more susceptible to monetarization than others. It is far easier to institute a new cash transfer program to provide additional support to older adults than to combat ageism and the discriminatory practices that ensue (Macnicol, 2006). Even when money transfers seem fairly easy to accomplish, there might be strong pressures to ensure that the money is being put to good use or that governmental officials monitor the use of the transfer being made, which is the case for individuals receiving social assistance in many industrialized countries. There is also far more oversight expected for younger individuals on social assistance than older adults near or past retirement age. For example, the additional support provided to poor older adults in Canada is income-tested and not means-tested, even at the provincial level (Marier & Séguin, 2015). This stands in contrast to the many rules and regulations that accompany welfare checks for younger adults across Canadian provinces (Béland & Daigneault, 2015).

The monetarization of problems is also becoming increasingly important within governmental organizations. Rare nowadays are proposals that can receive governmental approbation without a dollar amount attached to this action both in terms of expenditure and benefits. With economists (Markoff & Montecinos, 1993) and financial departments (Dahlström, 2009) exhorting increasing powers across all policy areas, the ability to monetarize the potential costs and benefits of a program or instrument is effectively mandatory for any programs involving money. This strategy is now even being employed by groups seeking remedial actions on the part of government. For example, pointing out the economic contributions of unpaid caregivers adds weight to the argument that they should obtain more support and stronger recognition (Hollander et al., 2009).

Scope of Activities

The term “scope” refers to the number of individuals, organizations, or activities affected by the policy problem being tackled. Usually, the larger the number of elements, the more complex the policy response will be. This notion implies the use of instruments where governmental intervention is more substantial. This is in contrast to addressing activities where the scope is quite limited, in which case a regulatory response is more likely (Peters, 2005). Attention to the scope of activities also brings forth the governmental capacity to enact an appropriate response. Peters (2005) employs the example of the EU where “soft laws” have been implemented to expand its field of competency. The creation of the “open method of coordination” to alter social policies, such as pensions, is a good example of the EU’s effort to increase its influence beyond its traditional mandate (de la Porte et al., 2001).


Many policy problems are increasingly difficult to confine within a single agency or ministry. As a rule of thumb, “more interdependent problems are likely to be more difficult to resolve” (Peters, 2005, p. 366). Elder abuse is an excellent example because it is likely to involve judicial authorities, the police, social services, the health care system, financial regulators, and senior secretariats. For a proper response, this particular policy problem requires strong horizontal coordination mechanisms and exceptional leadership to navigate the multiple barriers that occur as a result of each individual organization having its own set of procedures and understanding of elder abuse. This policy is far more difficult to deal with than policy problems that have a clear home within an agency, such as unemployment insurance for most industrialized countries.

Interdependencies represent an enormous challenge for public authorities seeking to develop a plan or strategy to tackle the multiple challenges and opportunities originating from an aging population. There is, for example, increasing pressure on employment departments to enact measures to boost the participation rates of citizens across all ages. Women, with a more precarious attachment to the labor market, are a prime target. However, the same women being targeted are often not in the labor market owing to their increasing caregiving responsibilities as health and social services offload tasks to them to cope with budgetary restrictions. It is also difficult for governmental authorities to avoid simplifying the complexity of population aging and turning it into a “seniors” problem (Marier, 2013).

To facilitate the discussion on policy problems, these latter two sections make a clear distinction between agenda setting and policy design. However, implications for both policymaking and instrument choice are clearly present in both sets of literature. In fact, the latest refinement of the policy attributes of policy problems features a nice division of implications for policymaking and policy instrument choice (Hoornbeek, 2015). A policy analysis is likely to navigate across and involve many of the characteristics discussed in the last two sections. The following section engages in more depth with the rapidly expanding literature on complexity and “wicked problems.”

The Return of “Wicked Problems”

The increasing difficulties associated with policy problems in industrialized countries have led many scholars to revisit the concept of “wicked problems.” While the first wave of literature on the subject originated from failures attributed to planning in the wake of mass protests in the late 1960s (Rittel & Webber, 1973), the current wave is embedded in a growing dissatisfaction with governmental services and frustrations surrounding issues requiring an international response. This even involves questions surrounding the policy capacity of governments to intervene and resolve social problems (Howlett, 2009). The contemporary policy environment features, for example, the presence of programs and policy across a wide range of fields and governmental levels, and the need to cooperate globally regarding problems such as climate change. An exhaustive review of this concept and applications would require an article on its own; thus, this section aims to revisit Rittel and Webber (1973), provides a brief discussion on how the concept of “wicked problems” has evolved, and concludes with an analysis of population aging.

Rittel and Webber

By the early 1970s, the original enthusiasm for policy planning and its capacity to address substantial social issues was beginning to wane. Wildavsky (1973), for example, wrote a stark criticism of planning and its practitioners, emphasizing their inability to fulfill early ambitions. It is within this context that Rittel and Webber (1973) introduced the concept of “wicked problems” to illustrate how different social problems are from those experienced in engineering or natural science. Key is the distinction between “tame” (science, engineering, mathematics) and “wicked problems” (social problem).

“Wicked problems” possess 10 properties:

  1. (1) “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (pp. 161–162). There is never a point where everyone is on board or agrees to the same conceptualization of a policy problem. In addition, in line with few of the approaches discussed above, the authors stress that solutions often dictate the definition of a problem.

  2. (2) “Wicked problems have no stopping rule” (p. 162). Contrary to mathematics or engineering, when it is clear that you have found a solution to a problem or puzzle, you never truly resolve a social problem since you can always improve the results. Pension policies represent a stellar example. Despite having substantially improved the retirement income of older citizens since World War II, most retirement systems in industrialized countries have constantly been subject to intense debate to improve them further or address their shortcomings.

  3. (3) “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (pp. 162–163). As illustrated eloquently in a study of French nuclear waste, the perfect scientific location may still be considered to be bad since the population may have a very different understanding of what constitutes a reasonable solution (Callon et al., 2001).

  4. (4) “There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem” (p. 163). Even once a solution is implemented, the problem is unlikely to disappear or go away. The primary example for this is the countless number of actions undertaken to eradicate or reduce poverty.

  5. (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” (p. 163). You cannot erase a board if a path undertaken to resolve a mathematical formula fails. In the case of implemented solutions, even pilot projects leave results that cannot be undone. For example, the guaranteed annual income experiment in Manitoba, a Canadian province, continues to reappear frequently in policy debates and represents a powerful reference for poverty advocates (Simpson, 2015).

  6. (6) “Wicked problems do not have an enumerable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan” (p. 164). As discussed above, this property strikes at the heart of the agenda-setting and problem definition literature (Rochefort & Cobb, 1994).

  7. (7) “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (p. 164). This property aims at the lack of generalization in resolving social problems. The growth of contributions on policy transfers and policy diffusion is a testament to the difficulties of applying solutions in various contexts.

  8. (8) “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). This refers as much to the level of analysis as to the interconnection between problems. There is nothing intrinsic that makes a problem a regional, individual, or global issue. For example, the Aging Friendly Cities program advocated by the World Health Organization assumes that municipalities or regional governments ought to transform their cities. However, it becomes clear early on that actions on this front require a broader connection with other levels of government and policy areas because it connects to so many other issues related to the physical and social environments (Menec et al., 2011).

  9. (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” (p. 166). This property stresses the importance of problem attribution. Once decision makers decide that the primary cause of poverty among seniors is, for example, a lack of savings, it becomes very difficult to introduce a counternarrative since this would challenge the earlier determination of a problem. As stated by the authors, “[t]he analyst’s world view is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy and there, in resolving a wicked problem” (p. 166).

  10. (10) “The planner has no right to be wrong” (pp. 166–167). Contrary to scientists whose hypotheses can be refuted without their facing the scorn of colleagues, planners offer propositions that, if adopted, will ultimately affect the lives of many individuals. Such tales exist among many publications such as “Great Planning Disasters” (Hall, 1980) where planning decisions can have highly negative political, social, and economic repercussions.

As this list of examples accompanying each property suggests, many social problems possess the qualities described by Rittel and Webber (1973). However, are all 10 properties necessary to label a policy problem a “wicked problem”? This simple question becomes all the more relevant in light of the recent utilization of this concept where the classification of policy problems as wicked rests upon few of the properties introduced by Rittel and Webber (1973).

The Revival of “Wicked Problems” and Its Application to Population Aging

After a hiatus, there has currently been a revival of contributions tackling the messy, complex policy environment within which policymakers operate. This revival includes use of complexity theory (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997) and analysis of “messy” policy problems (Ney, 2009). The “wicked problems” concept has not escaped this trend, and it has resurfaced across all the social sciences. Publications using this concept feature in a wide range of policy issues such as sport management (Sam, 2009), resource management (Lach et al., 2005; Shindler & Cramer, 1999), and teacher learning (Borko et al., 2009). Climate change is even a “super-wicked problem” (Lazarus, 2009; Levin et al., 2012). In addition, the focus has been on different kinds of issues associated with “wicked problems,” such as network coordination (Roberts, 2000). While the attention to the complexity of policy problems is welcome, the multiple uses of the “wicked problem” concept raises questions concerning its utilization. Peters (2015a) even raises the spectre of “conceptual stretching” from Sartori (1970) to describe its eclectic use in the literature, and he also points to the increasing number of articles emphasizing that “wicked problems” could be “tamed.”

At first glance, population aging is a prime candidate to be identified as a “wicked problem.” It is definitively complex, and multiple sociopolitical battles are being waged on how to define this demographic change as a problem alongside ready-made solutions awaiting deployment. There is even an article employing the concept of “wicked problem” to depict the complexities of societal aging in the Netherlands (Auping et al., 2015), and yet another stresses the changing and contradictory requirements associated with active and healthy aging (Riva et al., 2014). These recent contributions raise the following question: Is population aging truly a “wicked problem” based on the definition provided by Rittel and Webber (1973)?

Population aging, or the ongoing demographic shift in industrialized countries represents a messy and complex policy problem, but it does not constitute a “wicked problem.” There are at least two key reasons to justify this assessment if one follows closely the 10 properties presented by Rittel and Webber (1973). First, the formulation of a problem is not definitive when it comes to wicked. This formulation involves endless debates on the source of a problem and its measurement. This is not the case with population aging. The broad consensus is that the demographic shift is basically irreversible, even though policymakers sometimes overestimate the impact of immigration. In many ways, population aging is a fait accompli. This is in stark contrast to debates on poverty and climate change, two well-advertised “wicked problems” whose incidence (and sometimes presence) is highly contested.

Going further, the underlying causes behind the policy issues associated with population aging are well known and are rarely disputed. It is the scale and magnitude of the challenges that take precedence, but rarely the potential or expected presence of difficulties. The demographic impact often resides with the policy design, since many public programs did not seriously consider either demographic elements when they were first established or their interaction with other factors such as economic growth. Contrary to the formulation challenges of truly “wicked problems,” the real conflicts do not concern that nature of the problems and its solutions, but mostly the solutions. For example, Chappell and Hollander (2013), in a standard textbook on aging in Canada, do not dispute the fact that population aging will result in additional costs for Canada’s universal health care system; their primary objection resides with “alarmist solutions” promulgated by some policy analysts to alleviate these growing costs (p. 5).

Finally, the issues associated with population aging are temporary, as they are highly correlated with the baby-boom/baby-bust development that eventually generated an overall aging population across many industrialized countries. Although dependent on the demographic make-up of each society, an entirely new reality will emerge in 30 to 40 years (unless new remedies come to light to extend life expectancy much further). This means that policy problems fueled by population aging are likely to experience a stopping rule; that is, they will be replaced by other preoccupations, as opposed to remaining omnipresent like poverty and environmental issues.


In spite of the numerous scholarly debates on the conceptualization and utilization of policy problems, this concern remains highly significant in politics and within the policymaking process since one ultimately needs to identify a problem to justify policy change or advocate for a particular solution. As a result, policy problems continue to occupy an important place within policy process theories.

Interestingly, with politicians expected to address societal issues on the move via social media or 24-hour newsrooms, the place of communication is likely to strengthen in political science. Consequently, studies at the intersection of agenda setting and policy problems are likely to feature more prominently in policy studies owing to the importance of being able to define, or at least shape, policy problems for political purposes. Research agendas already reflect this shift, with the punctuated equilibrium model being applied to multiple cases outside of the United States across a wide range of policies (Baumgartner et al., 2006).

The increasing complexity of policy problems accentuates the need to design and conceive better policies, with innovative characteristics involving elements such as having to include many nations or public/private partnerships. The recent surge in interest in “wicked problems” is a testament to this new reality. Adapting earlier concepts and models remains a challenge for researchers, but it also provides a solid foundation on which they can build creative approaches to the study of policy design.

In the early 1970s, when the term “wicked problems” came to prominence, career civil servants (i.e., planners) were coming to grips with the reality that social problems are far more complex than expected, limiting the capacity of planning exercise to fulfill their promise. Although similar social problems prevail, the current challenge is quite different since the value of civil servants’ input and expertise also faces multiple threats from politicians and private-sector actors. Ironically, the difficulties associated with policy problems may eventually create a window of opportunity to find ways to re-valorize their expertise because the need for their professional help is likely to become more pressing. After all, they possess a vast amount of experience with wicked problems. They are constantly navigating across different political and policy interests to develop an acceptable understanding of policy problems in their search for solutions that can appease their political masters and be implemented.


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