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date: 16 August 2017

Problem Definition and the Policy Process: Wicked Problems

Summary and Keywords

In the early 1970s, Rittel and Webber asserted that conventional approaches to scientific analysis and rational planning were inadequate for guiding practitioners and researchers who were tackling complex and contested social problems—which they termed “wicked” problems. The full implications of this challenging critique of rational policy planning were not elaborated at that time, but the underlying issues have attracted increasing attention and debate in later decades. Policy analysts, academic researchers, and planning practitioners have continued to grapple with the claim that conventional scientific-technical approaches might be insufficient and even misleading as a basis for understanding and responding to complex social issues. This is paradoxical in the modern era, which has been attracted to notions of evidence-based policymaking, policy evaluation, and performance-based public management.

Scholarly discussion has continued to evolve concerning methods for addressing highly contested arenas of policy and planning. One key proposition is that citizens and key stakeholders tend to have conflicting perceptions about the nature of particular social “problems” and will thus have different views about appropriate responses or “solutions.” A related proposition is that these disputes are anchored in differing values and perceptions, which are not able to be adjudicated and settled by empirical science, but require inclusive processes of argumentation and conflict resolution among stakeholders. Hence, several kinds of knowledge—lay and expert, civic and professional—need to be brought together in order to develop transdisciplinary “usable knowledge.”

As the research literature produces a richer array of comparative case analyses, it may become feasible to construct a more nuanced understanding of the conditions underlying various kinds of wicked problems in social policy and planning. In the meantime, generalized and indiscriminate use of the term wicked problems is not helpful for delineating the nature of the challenges faced and appropriate remedial actions.

Keywords: wicked problems, problem definition, complex problems, new public management, collaborative problem solving, risk management, information uncertainty


The public policy process in a democratic political system is always focused on the “problems” that should compel attention and debate. Defining the nature of the problems that warrant a public policy response is central to policy debate and program management (Dery, 1984). In every country, some types of problems are seen as more important than others, and many key issues are placed on the policy agenda for further debate and consideration (see Marier, 2016).

Importantly, some problems are regarded as more straightforward than others. Straightforward problems are generally able to be defined and understood with reasonable clarity, and are able to be resolved with a reasonable level of agreement. In a sense, they cease to become “problems” by becoming settled and institutionalized. By contrast, other problems are seen as more complex, more intractable, and more likely to defy resolution. Examples might include the persistence of poverty and inequality, family violence, criminal behavior, and environmental degradation. These problems typically provoke divergent views about the very nature of the problem and its relative importance. The disagreements arise because key stakeholders’ viewpoints are shaped by different assumptions, values, and interests. The differences have major consequences, since the way in which a problem is scoped and perceived tends to correspond with specific remedial actions to address the identified problem.

The Original Formulation

In their foundational article, Rittel and Webber used the term wicked to describe intractable and contested social problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973; see also Churchman, 1967; Skaburskis, 2008). They suggested that such problems could not be tamed or domesticated through standard managerial approaches that rely on rational-analytic models of planning and decision making. In drawing attention to the intractable and contentious aspects of wicked problems, Rittel and Webber suggested that most policy responses are partial or even counterproductive, and that even the best available solutions are highly provisional rather than enduring. They implied that inclusive discussion, involving a wide range of stakeholders, would be needed to deal with the most challenging issues. The challenges, according to Rittel and Webber, applied not only in their own field of urban design and architecture but also in wider fields of social and environmental planning and policymaking. However, their 1973 article was primarily directed toward critiquing and problematizing the rational planning approaches of their era, rather than offering detailed advice on preferred processes and methods for managing complex and wicked issues into the future.

Rittel and Webber distinguished between, on the one hand, “tame” or “benign” problems (typified by engineering, operations research, and computational sciences), which are amenable to being “solved” through technical expertise, and, on the other hand, wicked social problems that cannot be controlled in the same way through technical expertise. The difference arises essentially from the social complexity and political pluralism of the stakeholders; in other words, both the nature of the problems and the acceptability of the policy responses are politically contested.

Rittel and Webber elaborated ten features of wicked problems, crafted as counterpoints to the prevailing orthodoxies of scientific planning and operations research:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

  • Wicked problems have no “stopping rule” (i.e., no definitive solution).

  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false; instead, they are good or bad.

  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

  • Every [attempted] solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error.

  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable set of potential [correct] solutions that may be incorporated into the plan.

  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

  • 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.

  • The planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., there is no public tolerance for experiments that fail).

(Rittel & Webber, 1973, pp. 161–167; for a slightly different list, see Rittel, 2010)

The intent of this framework was not to establish a new paradigm for policy analysis and for social science explanation, but rather to provide grounds for skepticism about the prevalent assumption that scientific planning and associated policy panaceas could actually resolve complex social and environmental issues. By drawing attention to the inherently political and conflictual dimensions of how problems are defined and scoped, Rittel and Webber drew attention to the limits of scientific expertise (as well as the limits of partisan ideological solutions), in shaping appropriate policy responses to ongoing and contested social issues.

The contrast between technocratic problems and socially complex problems was nicely illustrated by Nelson (1974, 1977) in his reflections on the “moon-ghetto metaphor.” Nelson noted there was a stark difference between the ambitious NASA program of the 1960s designed to land a manned spacecraft on the moon and the same government’s ambitious “war on poverty” in racially divided U.S. cities during the same period. The first (technical) challenge was successfully solved, through massive investments in specialized science and engineering, supported by strong political leadership and bipartisan legitimization. On the other hand, science and technology could not solve the second (social) challenge—because urban poverty and social dysfunction involve a mix of difficult and linked issues spanning racial discrimination, unemployment, education, housing, and criminal behavior, etc. This is a classic case of a wicked problem—persistent, multilayered, with many interactive causal relationships, and with many conflicting perspectives about values, priorities, and methods for improvement.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, a period of social and political upheaval in western democracies, a major debate raged between two camps in the social sciences. On the one hand, the proponents of a conventional (positivist) approach argued that rigorous social research could establish a scientific understanding of causal relationships among social factors, thereby allowing better selection of policy and regulatory instruments to achieve desired social goals. By contrast, various versions of hermeneutic social science and critical social theory (e.g., Adorno, 1976; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Rein, 1976) argued that understanding sociopolitical processes requires an emphasis on lived experience, concern about inequalities in power, and respect for the authenticity of citizens’ own expressed perspectives about their values and interests.

Whereas positivist social scientists tended to analyze small and discrete slices of more complex phenomena, other scholars sought to pursue more integrated approaches. Those influenced by systems thinking pointed to the importance of taking into account more complex and interconnected layers of analysis (Churchman, 1968; Mason & Mitroff, 1981). Ackoff (1974) claimed that social and economic problems cannot be understood and addressed in isolation:

Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a system of interrelated problems, a system of problems . . . I choose to call such a system a mess . . . The solution to a mess can seldom be obtained by independently solving each of the problems of which it is composed . . . Efforts to deal separately with such aspects of urban life as transportation, health, crime, and education seem to aggravate the total situation.

(Ackoff, 1974, p. 21)

In terms of managing or resolving complex and controversial problems, a large number of strategies and policy instruments could, at least in principle, be available for the consideration of decision makers. Roberts (2000) suggested that these essentially centered on three main choices: authoritative, competitive, and collaborative forms of strategic response. The first seeks to impose a solution and centralize control through empowering expert authority (whether scientific-technical, legal-regulatory, or military). The second strategy relies on markets—including the contest of economic and political ideas—to produce innovation, but only the winners are likely to be rewarded and others may suffer losses. The third involves building partnerships, alliances, and networks to find areas of mutual benefit and to tackle issues that cannot be solved by any particular organization.

In these circumstances, where a government feels compelled to take action, one possible approach would be to impose a singular authoritative “solution” on the complex and contested realities. Three brief examples might illustrate this point. First, to combat the “drug problem,” a government might declare a “war on drugs” by making all involved in the supply and distribution of illicit drugs guilty of a capital offense and subject to execution. Second, to combat the “crime problem,” a government might declare it would increase penalties and build many new prisons to separate offenders from society. Third, to tackle the “immigration problem” and to improve social harmony, a government might declare that it would drastically cut immigration numbers and favor groups with the best history of social assimilation. In each of these cases, the policy responses might be popular with large sections of society, but the populist “solutions” might be tackling only some of the symptoms without tackling the underlying causal factors governing the evolution of the difficult and intractable problems.

Developing the Legacy

Discussion of the wicked problems framework in the modern context needs to be linked to later developments in the literature about policymaking. Three important sets of intellectual issues and themes, highlighted but not developed during the 1970s discussions, have attracted enduring interest and generated further conceptual development and detailed comparative case analyses. One theme relates to the most appropriate focus of policy analysis itself, the second theme relates to improving the knowledge base for policymaking in complex policy areas, and the third theme relates to exploring the most effective methods of deliberation for addressing wicked problems in the future.

Problem Framing in Policy Analysis and Politics

The first legacy theme, the key focus of policy analysis, has served to reinforce the importance of problem definition and agenda setting in policy debates. This is the phase of the policy process where the nature and scope of problems are initially formulated and debated (Dery, 1984). Some problems (“tame” in Rittel and Webber’s terminology) are relatively well defined and well structured, with agreed technical parameters and a relatively solid knowledge base. Much of the literature of the early 1970s took computational logic (underlying the early development of information processing and operations research) as a yardstick for determining whether problems, and the rules for problem solving (as in a game of chess), were well specified (Simon, 1973, 1983). Some problems were seen as less structured or simply “ill structured.” Other authors rejected this logic-based approach to problem structuring in order to focus on the intrinsic qualities of entangled and ambiguous problems, whose boundaries and connections were described as “messy” (Ackoff, 1974; Dunn, 1988; Horn & Weber, 2007; Mason & Mitroff, 1981). These messy problems included the complex and contested issues that displayed many of the features typical of wicked (intractable) problems.

Framing is a crucial dimension of how the debates about problems, contexts, and responses are shaped and represented. Schön and Rein considered framing “a way of selecting, organizing, interpreting and making sense of a complex reality to provide guideposts for knowing, analyzing, persuading and acting” (Schön & Rein, 1994, p. 146). The dynamics of problem framing and problem definition are important for many reasons, including the widely accepted observation that the way a problem is defined (or structured) is closely tied to the type of solution that is proposed (Bacchi, 2009; Peters, 2005). For example, if poverty is seen as an individual-centered problem, generated largely by deficits in personal skill and motivation, the solutions proposed will be oriented toward encouraging individuals to develop their skills and work orientation. By contrast, if poverty is largely seen as an enduring structural feature of society, generated by economic elites and impersonal market forces, the solutions proposed are likely to be oriented toward social security, employment programs, and income safety nets.

In the decades since the 1970s, the public policy literature has also increasingly focused on the situations or contexts in which problem framing occurs. Through empirical case studies and more systematic comparative analyses, policy studies have come to recognize the crucial importance of examining closely the nature and evolution of different types of policy problems. Thus, there has been more nuanced attention to: problems arising in specific policy domains (such as social, educational, economic, or environmental); demonstrating how problems are linked with different sets of stakeholders, decision makers, and network configurations; differentiating the problems at different geospatial scales (local, regional, national, global); and identifying problems that have spillovers and ramifications across policy sectors and across organizational sectors (for example, issues centered on sustainable development, socioeconomic well-being, or social justice).

These more nuanced typologies and approaches have become the basis for reconsidering policy design. Since the 1970s this term has been used to emphasize the creativity, innovation, and learning dimensions of the search for policy alternatives—themes that fitted nicely with Rittel and Webber’s academic base in the urban planning and architecture disciplines. For Linder and Peters (1984), a design perspective would need to build systematically on three dimensions of policy knowledge: understanding causation, the evaluation of alternatives, and understanding how interventions operate. It would be necessary to deepen policy thinking around the characteristics of problems (scale, collectiveness, certainty, predictability, independence), the nature of stated goals (value-laden, operational, process of goal setting), and the nature and suitability of various instruments. Policy design, according to Howlett (2011, 2014), represents an integrated approach that brings together identifying and scoping the problem, debating the choice of instruments and procedures, and evaluating implementation processes, including longer-term outcomes. The analysis of complex issues requires special care, however, because such problems are likely to be politically contentious, marked by “framing contests” that oversimplify the problems and recast them in more emotional and value-laden terms. Complex issues are also likely to display knowledge gaps and diversity among stakeholder perspectives and interests, both of which create higher levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, as noted below.

Knowledge and the Reliability of Science

The second legacy theme relates to the role of knowledge in better understanding and addressing wicked problems. The rational-technical approach assumes that complex and contested social problems can be addressed and mitigated through the application of better information (Seidman, 1983). What kinds of knowledge are most valuable for developing better decisions? Does more knowledge improve the level of certainty, not only about the nature of problems but also about the most effective programs of action to achieve improved outcomes?

The rationalist optimism of technocratic planning and mega-projects (for critiques, see Webber, 1978; Sieber, 1981; Hall, 1982) attests to the strength of this belief in the power and efficacy of expertise—not only within the research sector but also among various governmental agencies (Rivlin, 1971) and practitioner organizations. The “evidence-based” policy movement (Davies, 2004; Maynard, 2006; Nutley, Walter, & Davies, 2007) demonstrates the ongoing vitality of progressive social science. The cognitive dimension of social understanding (i.e., how to generate and validate rigorous knowledge) is of vital importance for policy analysis. Reliable knowledge is essential for better understanding the multidimensional aspects of a problem in context, and for evaluating the likely effects of possible interventions (Haskins & Margolis, 2014; Head, 2016).

However, the processes of policy decision making are not science-driven, owing to the political realities of power, competition, pragmatism, and partisan communication. Many kinds of knowledge and experience are important, including the perspectives of stakeholders, citizen-clients, program managers, regulators, and service providers. In practice, the more complex the problem under consideration, the less likely that science alone can provide an answer that is acceptable to all. In many policy areas, different policy options will have differential impacts on various groups. In other words, there are inherent issues of equity, fairness, and ethical conduct in the choice and implementation of policies to deal with wicked problems (Wexler, 2009), and policy actors have a serious moral responsibility to understand the reliability of the knowledge base for decisions as well as the equity impacts of choices.

Processes for Better Managing Dissonance and Political Uncertainty

Given the complexities arising from various forms of stakeholder conflict and knowledge uncertainty, the third important legacy theme has been concerned with identifying policy processes for dealing with the messy, ambiguous, controversial, or unstructured nature of wicked problems. Fortunately, there are many problems that have already been debated and processed, including relatively simple or “tame” issues with agreed solutions. These often become settled into routine patterns of administration, in which incremental adjustment and performance monitoring are accepted as the dominant modes of governance. The political theatre of public debate then tends to focus on the more controversial, uncertain, and emergent policy problems—which tend to require “nonroutine” processes to help identify long-term policy responses that will be seen as feasible and legitimate.

The wicked problems perspective emphasizes the role of stakeholder perceptions, values, and interests in explaining how issues are scoped, priorities are set, and possible solutions considered. Pluralism is seen as an inherent feature of modern societies, and as a positive feature to be celebrated (Webber, 1978), rather than as an inconvenience to be suppressed through technocracy and scientistic decision making. Public policy, from this viewpoint, is not so much about establishing truths but more about legitimatizing feasible and acceptable next steps. Communication and negotiation must have a key role. Rather than a reliance on expert-driven science and data analysis, the central focus is on mediating the values and interests that are articulated by citizens, consumers, business lobbies, and community and environmental groups.

Uncertainties arising from knowledge gaps or conflicts, from value differences, and from organizational or regulatory complexities are likely to exacerbate tensions inherent in addressing wicked problems, according to Koppenjan and Klijn (2004). To address these tensions and uncertainties, a new literature has emerged on the theory and practice of inclusive forms of deliberation for policy and planning, such as stakeholder forums and citizen juries (Fischer, 1993; Fischer & Gottweis, 2012; Hajer & Wagenaar, 2003; Innes, 1995; Innes & Booher, 2010). If the purpose of the process is to reach broad agreement on a feasible and legitimate policy stance, while avoiding the negativity of partisan posturing, some of the processes for airing grievances and reconciling differences will need to be behind closed doors (Campbell, 2003). In order to allow innovative ideas to emerge, policy actors may need to be protected from politicization (Hoppe, 2010, p. 140). Deliberative spaces or forums for reasoned debate and discussion allow actors to be shielded temporarily from the fierce glare of everyday scrutiny and partisan politics. These collaborative processes are designed to facilitate the emergence of new thinking and greater consensus (Ansell & Torfing, 2014; Weber & Khademian, 2008).

Identifying Core Features and Core Strategies

Rittel and Webber (1973) proposed a list of ten characteristic features of wicked problems, but they provided only incidental commentary on how the features operate individually or collectively in practice. Given the overlap between some of the elements, it is reasonable to regard the list as suggestive, rather than as constituting a definitional scorecard (i.e., all wicked problems must have all ten features, other problems have none or only a few). Because their list is quite cumbersome, and because it reflects the terminology of a 1970s debate with the sciences of information processing and operations research, later writers have tried to simplify and reformulate the essential features in more accessible language. Indeed, there are potential advantages in providing a more cohesive and simple account that can help analysts to focus research and practice on the nature of the diverse problems and appropriate methods for addressing different kinds of problems.

First, in a review of scholarly usages of the term wicked problem, Danken and colleagues (2016) found a concentration of three themes or clusters concerning the nature of such problems:

(1) wicked problems resist a clear solution, and they tend to become chronic; (2) the management of wicked problems involves a multitude of stakeholders with typically diverging values and interests; and, finally, (3) wicked problems defy full understanding and definition of their nature and implications.

(Danken, Dribbisch, & Lange, 2016, p. 18)

Xiang (2013) argued there are five core features of wicked problems:

  1. 1. indeterminacy in problem formulation

  2. 2. nondefinitiveness in problem solution

  3. 3. nonsolubility

  4. 4. irreversible consequentiality

  5. 5. individual uniqueness.

Head (2008) argued that there are three essential dimensions of wicked problems that are cumulative and mutually reinforcing: complexity (in relation to elements, subsystems, and interdependencies), uncertainty (in relation to risks, consequences, and future changes), and divergence (in relation to values, viewpoints, and strategies).

Second, in relation to methods for addressing wicked problems, Danken and colleagues identified two main approaches in the scholarly literature. The first was collaboration: “the involvement of external stakeholders in public policymaking, inter-organizational collaboration among governmental bodies, and networked forms of governance.” The second method required enhanced public leadership, especially new skills and understandings by public managers for dealing with collaboration and mediation among stakeholders (Danken et al., 2016, p. 18). The two methods are consistent with much of the recent research that points to the need for addressing the significant implications of cross-boundary issues and multilevel governance. Balint and colleagues (2011) additionally argued for “learning networks” as a method for dealing with knowledge uncertainty, values differences, and lack of agreement on solutions. Head and Alford (2015) argued that the “problem complexity” and “stakeholder divergence” aspects of wicked problems can be addressed through new approaches to systems thinking, collaboration, and coordination, and the adaptive leadership roles of public leaders and managers. Termeer et al. (2015) argued that four broad sets of governance capabilities are needed: (a) reflexivity, or the capability to deal with multiple frames; (b) resilience, or the capability to adjust actions to uncertain changes; (c) responsiveness, or the capability to respond to changing agendas and expectations; and (d) revitalization, or the capability to unblock stagnations. Xiang (2013) argued that the collective or “social” nature of working with wicked problems and adaptation strategies requires a “holistic and process-oriented approach” that is “adaptive, participatory, and transdisciplinary.” Working through an “open and heuristic process of collective learning, exploration, and experimentation,” this approach promises to be “efficacious in fostering collaborative behavior, reducing conflicts, building trust among all stakeholders and communities involved, and ultimately producing better and more satisfying results” (Xiang, 2013, p. 2).

In confronting the difficulties and intractability of wicked problems, Rittel and Webber did not despair. They did not counsel fatalism, passivity, or inaction in the face of the knowledge uncertainties and conflict mitigation challenges. Nor did they endorse simplistic or ideological panaceas, such as the “small” government agenda whereby the public sector abandons any ambition to resolve tough issues, or offloads responsibility for problem solving to those directly affected. Rather, the wicked problems perspective in public policy is a call for governments to embrace stakeholder pluralism, acknowledge the limits of current knowledge, and develop procedural reforms to make policy processes more open and transparent (Head, 2014; Hoppe, 2010).

“Fixing” the Problem? Or “Tackling” the Challenges?

Much of the public policy literature has maintained a pragmatic skepticism about human capacities to solve major problems. Wildavsky, for example, recognized the difficulty of tackling broad and persistent social problems: “problems are not so much solved as alleviated, superseded, transformed, and otherwise dropped from view” (Wildavsky, 1979, p. 386). Problems are reinvented and refurbished, just as solutions are refreshed and recycled. In order to avoid overgeneralization, policy analysts have distinguished a spectrum of policymaking contexts with different levels of risk and challenge. At one end of the spectrum, the challenges for understanding and decision are relatively routine in nature, and are handled administratively with little discussion; in more challenging or novel situations, adaptive management leads to incremental change but with little requirement for debate and conflict about underlying assumptions. At the other end of the spectrum, large and complex issues may emerge that generate fundamental questioning of current problem framing and policy approaches and major debates about new paradigms for future action:

routine decision regimes focus on matching and adapting existing programs and repertoires to emerging conditions, but involve little debate on its logic and design, which is built into the programs and repertoires; incremental decision-making deals with selective issues as they emerge, but does not deal comprehensively with all constituent issues associated with the policy domain; and fundamental decisions are relatively infrequent opportunities to re-think approaches to policy domains, whether as result of crisis, new governments, or policy spillovers. Where fundamental decisions are concerned, it is important to note that they are anticipated and followed by incremental or routine regimes.

(Lindquist, 2001, p. 19)

The assumption that big problems eventually tend to become transformed or institutionalized into settled programs is best seen as an empirical question, for ongoing research. The structural and dynamic aspects of problem agendas and policy development are shaped by many factors, ranging from the contest of ideas (Béland & Cox, 2011) to the political and institutional forces in play.

The extent of agreement on values and knowledge, among both decision makers and stakeholders, is of critical importance. It affects not only how the problem is perceived but also how adequate policy responses are best generated. Drawing on the management and leadership literature, Heifetz (1994, p. 76) distinguished among three situations: first, where there is clarity about both the nature of the problem and the likely solution; second, where the nature of the problem is seen to be clear, but the solutions are not—typically leading to further investigation and discussion; and third, situations where both the problem definition and the solution are unclear, requiring extensive discussion and debate over time. Drawing on the public policy literature, Hoppe (2010) in a similar fashion distinguished between “unstructured” problems (which are low on knowledge certainty and low on alignment of values and norms) and “structured” problems, where there is higher knowledge certainty and higher agreement on norms and values (Hoppe, 2010, pp. 72–77).

These reflections point toward a need for a more nuanced approach to categorizing policy problems. Rather than binary either–or thinking (wicked or nonwicked), it would be useful to consider a spectrum of problem types, which vary according to the intensity of their potentially wicked features, such as stakeholder conflict and knowledge uncertainty (Alford & Head, 2015).

Drawing on the environmental and resource-management literature, Balint and colleagues (2011) distinguished a range of situations faced by decision makers, dependent on whether stakeholder values are aligned and whether the knowledge base is robust. This leads to four scenarios (Table 1), ranging from relatively tame situations (type 1) through to relatively wicked problems (type 4).

Table 1. The Intersection of Knowledge and Value Dissonance

High agreement on values

Low agreement on values

State of knowledge: Well developed

1. Relatively easy decisions; periodic expert review and adjustment

2. Focus on dialogue among stakeholders to resolve differences

State of knowledge: Tentative and disputed

3. Knowledge gaps need to be tackled by experts, with periodic stakeholder engagement

4. Wicked problems requiring repeated dialogue among experts and stakeholders

Source: Simplified from Balint et al. (2011, p. 10).

In relation to health policy reform, Glouberman and Zimmerman (2002, pp. 1–10) have argued that policy challenges can be classified as simple, complicated, or complex. In healthcare, the simple issues are managed through standard formulae and accepted practices. However, there are many complicated issues that require substantial expertise, technical innovation, financial investment, and coordination to manage the issue within accepted boundaries, as in the evolving treatment of transmissible diseases. Complex or wicked problems, which are marked by disagreement on values and approaches, tend to become intractable and entrenched. Escaping from a policy gridlock requires fresh thinking and collaborative leadership, according to Glouberman and Zimmerman, but these are difficult to generate.

The assertion that such problems can be “solved” is perhaps a rhetorical gesture, commonly indulged by politicians and leaders seeking electoral support. Recent scholars have endorsed the view that the language of “solving” or “fixing” a problem should in most cases be replaced by the language of tackling, managing, coping with, and addressing wicked problems (Head & Xiang, 2016). Wicked problems cannot be “tamed” or “fixed” by dissolving them into multiple elements that are then re-assembled. The political attempt to convert messy unstructured problems into “well-structured” problems begs the question of whether it is possible to resolve issues through converting them into “technically controllable” issues (Hoppe, 2010, p. 88). As Conklin noted, because there are no clear and definitive solutions: “You don’t so much ‘solve’ a wicked problem as you help stakeholders negotiate shared understanding and shared meaning about the problem and its possible solutions. The objective of the work is coherent action, not final solution” (Conklin, 2006, p. 5). This accords with Rittel and Webber’s argument that there is no “best solution” to a wicked problem, but only provisional responses that are negotiable among relevant stakeholders. Moreover, as Grint pointed out, from a constructivist viewpoint, leaders are very actively involved in shaping perceptions of the problem itself, the “context” in which decisions need to be made, and the preferred responses. These persuasive efforts may legitimize a particular form of action already preferred by the decision maker. In effect, the problem-context is reconstructed as a “political arena,” in which leaders use persuasive mechanisms “to render situations more tractable and compliant to their own preferred form of authority” (Grint, 2005, p. 1492).

Diffusion and Generalization of Concepts

Questions have arisen about whether the wide diffusion of the concept of wicked problems has made it more powerful—wicked problems are being noted across a vast range of disciplines and policy domains (business, cybernetics, ecology, urban design, energy, transportation, health, socioeconomic sciences, and political-administrative sciences). For example, the extensive literature on business strategy, which has been focused for many years on how to navigate risk and uncertainty (Mintzberg, 1994; Raynor, 2007; Stacey, 1992), has been rediscovering wicked problems as a way of making sense of chaotic economic behavior under conditions of risk and uncertainty (Camillus, 2008). The alternative view is that the widespread diffusion and generalization of the concept has undermined its analytical value, and that more precise conceptual distinctions are needed.

The geospatial scale of analysis has also become stretched, ranging from the local to the global. At a local level, there are many case studies examining a single policy challenge in a specific institutional setting—such as aged care (Burns, Hyde, & Killett, 2013) or mental health (Hannigan & Coffey, 2011). In the middle, there are studies of significant policy challenges (e.g., anti-terrorism strategy; see Christensen, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2016; Fischbacher-Smith, 2016) pursued at a national level but with significant linkages to regional and global circumstances (e.g., ecological protection; Davies et al., 2015). At the other end of the spectrum, there are studies of macro and even global issues of sustainable development and social justice. For example, Levin et al. (2012) characterized climate change as a “super wicked” problem with four features:

Time is running out; those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution; the central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent; and, partly as a result, policy responses discount the future irrationally. These four features combine to create a policy-making “tragedy” where traditional analytical techniques are ill equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognized that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts.

In similar fashion, Lazarus (2009) claimed that, in relation to policy responses to address the super wicked problem of climate change, environmental reforms are generally difficult to achieve, and that legislated measures are often weakened by under-resourcing and weak implementation in later years. The science of climate change points to the need for robust actions to achieve medium- and long-term goals and targets, and the science also demonstrates that the cost of remedial action will increase even more rapidly unless early preventative measures are taken. However, it has been widely observed that there are few incentives for taking substantive immediate actions, while there are strong political pressures not to impose large costs on current actors for the sake of future generations.

Much effort has been expended on examining whether controversial and large-scale problems are usefully described as wicked, as super-wicked, or simply as an interconnected series of complex multilevel problems. Some analysts are happy to abandon the terminology of wicked problems because the core meaning has been weakened in the process of diffusion and indiscriminate usage. Others insist that the insights about diversity and contestation in perceptions, knowledge, and preferred action are fundamental for the social sciences. In particular, they argue that understanding wicked problems requires a transdisciplinary approach (Brown, Harris, & Russell, 2010; Huutoniemi & Tapio, 2014). The definitional and epistemological disputes are unlikely to be resolved by scholars. However, there is considerable energy among practitioners to make progress in refining new approaches to tackling complex pressing issues.

Addressing Wicked Problems—The Practitioner Turn

The scholarly study of problems can easily become preoccupied with knowledge questions. Much of the recent literature attempts to move the focus of attention toward exploring a range of facilitation processes that could be appropriate for managing diversity and uncertainty, and thus enhancing well-considered approaches for collective action in a local community (Conklin, 2006; Horn & Weber, 2007). A government report on wicked or intractable problems (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007) suggested that government agencies should aim to achieve “sustained behavioral change” through “collaboration” as a response to “social complexity.” The report outlined a range of new thinking and new processes or techniques that might be useful for dealing with wicked problems, in turn requiring an expansion in the repertoire of strategic skills used by senior public officials and political leaders:

  • Holistic thinking that captures the big picture and the interrelationship of policy problems, not partial or linear thinking.

  • A comprehensive focus and/or strategy—because wicked problems have multiple causes, they require sustained effort and resources.

  • Innovative and flexible approaches—the need for a systematic approach to social innovation.

  • The ability to work across agency boundaries—wicked problems do not conform to organizational boundaries.

  • Increasing understanding and debate on appropriate accountabilities, because existing accountability frameworks may constrain strategies for addressing wicked problems.

  • Effectively engaging stakeholders and citizens in understanding the problem and in identifying possible solutions.

  • Acquisition of additional, needed core skills—develop new skills in communication, big picture thinking, influencing skills, and the ability to work cooperatively.

  • Tolerating uncertainty and accepting the need for a long-term focus—solutions to wicked problems are provisional and uncertain, there are no quick fixes, and solutions may need further policy change or adjustment. (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007, pp. 35–36)

Given the inadequate development of governance arrangements for dealing with large and compound problems like climate change or sustainable development, at both national and global levels, some analysts have argued for a pluralist and incremental approach (rather than a comprehensive architecture for rational policy planning). The quest for rational and elegant solutions, derived from science and logic, has been strongly rejected by the proponents of cultural theory (Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky, 1990), by the advocates of “post-normal science” (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993, 2003; Turnpenny, 2012), and by the champions of “clumsy solutions” theory (Verweij & Thompson, 2006). Dialogue-based solutions acknowledge diverse perspectives and contributions. Several prospective approaches have been identified by scholars and practitioners concerned about developing such strategies (Davies et al., 2015; Ney & Verweij, 2015). Social problem-solving strategies need to be flexible, according to this pluralist approach, and could therefore be misjudged as being inexact, “clumsy,” or messy when judged by the artificially high yardstick of pure science. However, if human societies are inherently pluralistic in their thinking, and if societies are now facing rapid change and high uncertainty, it is sensible to deploy multiple strategies rather than to seek a “one best” solution. From a related perspective, Ostrom (2007) argued that polycentric forums, building on the knowledge of local stakeholders, provide a sound pathway for resolving many problems in resource management. Taking account of specific interests and contingent situations is important for avoiding the false allure of ideological solutions and dangerous panaceas.

Linking Wicked Problems to the Broader Policy Literature

In order to sharpen the explanatory capacity and generative power of wicked problems conceptualization, there are large benefits in drawing upon cutting-edge developments in contemporary policy sciences. There is extensive literature for both researchers and practitioners that will aid in understanding problems arising from complex sociopolitical and socioecological processes, and with a view to improving policy and planning outcomes. For example, the policy sciences literature is exploring important new themes concerning the theory and practice of policy design, policy reform, effective implementation, policy evaluation, and the determinants of policy success and failure. These are all relevant for better understanding and management of wicked problems. In addition, there is a recognition of the need for making better use of case studies, including a special role for comparative case analysis for testing and refining conceptual understanding (Dodds, 2013; Ney, 2009; Turnpenny, Lorenzoni, & Jones, 2009). Some examples are noted below in relation to four policy themes—crisis, complex systems, collaboration, and experimentation—that could further contribute to developing a deeper understanding of wicked problems.

The literature on policy response to crisis can make useful contributions to understanding some types of wicked problems. Crisis generally involves the experience (or the high risk) of major harm to populations, to organizations, to leadership reputation, or to the environment. Wicked challenges might be embedded in crises, especially those aspects generated by human behavior (rather than by natural disasters). Political, social, and economic crises highlight the importance of good leadership and effective management in identifying risks, undertaking contingency planning, and coordinating a range of organizations that can address the challenge (Drennan, McConnell, & Stark, 2015; Keen, 2008). Crisis management generally calls for rapid response by leaders and managers, rather than lengthy consultations among stakeholders.

But some wicked problems are slow to develop and slow to be recognized as requiring urgent attention (e.g., global climate change or global population growth). They can be seen as latent or creeping crises. The underlying causal conditions can manifest in specific local symptoms (such as famine and crop failures during cycles of drought, or flood devastation in large river-delta cities). Short-term local responses will depend on financial and technical resources, including logistics support and managerial coordination capacity; but long-term preventative measures are very difficult to generate, owing to a combination of political factors (the framing of competing priorities, political risks for leaders) and critical constraints on financial investment. Moreover, leaders and policy advocates have to contend with the widespread “discounting” of future risks and rewards against the current array of entrenched benefits and expectations (Giddens, 2011; Kahneman, 2011).

Policy responses to other crisis-linked wicked problems, such as responding to a spike in refugees or a surge in terrorist incidents, require a high level of coordination between government agencies. Better coordination is widely seen as a necessary element in responding effectively to many kinds of wicked problems, but the political and managerial challenges of effective coordination can be immense (Christensen, Lægreid, & Rykkja, 2013, 2016; Peters, 2015).

The policy literature on complex systems is growing rapidly, and many scholars see a connection between the discussion of wicked problems and complex systems (Byrne & Callaghan, 2014; Geyer & Cairney, 2015; Geyer & Rihani, 2010). Complexity theory, originally developed in the biophysical sciences, draws attention to the multiple interconnections, feedback loops, and surprising side effects that often undermine leaders’ aspirations to “control” their sociopolitical systems. More concretely, the governance of societies through public institutions is inherently challenging, and is full of tensions and paradoxes (e.g., reconciling stability and change, effectiveness and legitimacy). Managing complex public governance systems is clearly fraught with difficulties and uncertainties, and the simplifications of managerialism are viewed with suspicion by complexity thinkers (Kiel, 1994; Tiesman et al., 2009). Most writers emphasize the need for capacity building, to facilitate rapid adaptation to emerging events or trends, and endorse the valuable adaptive nature of networks in spanning across the sectors of stakeholders and organizations.

There is an even larger literature on collaborative governance and the benefits of organizations’ working across sectoral boundaries (O’Leary & Bingham, 2009; Weber & Khademian, 2008). But joined-up interagency coordination within government is only one part of the challenge; the broader challenge is to establish effective arrangements to cross the vast divide between public sector agencies and the various nongovernment spheres represented by business and community and research organizations (Torfing, Peters, Pierre, & Sørensen, 2012). In terms of wicked problems, the argument is that the “new public management” emphasis on efficiency and simplicity in the 1980s and 1990s generated fragmentation within government, thus undermining the capacity to address complex wicked issues; therefore, it has been necessary to establish new processes to bring these sectors together both for discussing the nature of the problems and for considering the range of possible policy responses (O’Flynn, Blackman, & Halligan, 2014).

This ties in closely with the final theme, namely the need for innovation and experimental policy design. Sanderson (2009) argued that policy learning should be a paramount objective in designing innovative approaches to complex and intractable issues. Incremental and adaptive approaches, including pilot programs and rapid-cycle evaluations, could allow new ideas to be tested with only a low risk of negative impacts elsewhere in the system. Placing a high priority on policy learning and the continuous refinement of options also allows for adaptation to the evolving circumstances that are typical in complex systems. However, the political culture of risk aversion may be hostile to acceptance of the provisional nature of solutions and the need for continual adjustment. In other words, innovation to deal with wicked problems requires a more flexible mindset, not only on the part of public managers but also on the part of their ministers.

Ansell and Torfing (2014) outlined approaches for the co-design of innovative solutions, arguing that collaboration can foster innovation through the synergies, commitment, and learning processes. An increased interest in co-design of policy has also led to a desire for better understanding of behavioral change, both at the individual level and at the organizational and interagency levels. Traditional tools and instruments by which governments seek to influence citizens’ behavior (e.g., legislation, regulation, taxes, subsidies, and information) remain central, but new mixes of policy interventions are increasingly seen to be necessary (Howlett, 2011, 2014; Zito, 2016). Among the innovative approaches, increased attention is being directed toward using improved communications tools to encourage behavioral change (such as water and energy conservation practices) to achieve collective purposes.


Rittel, Webber, and Churchman asserted that conventional scientific approaches are not only inadequate, but could even also be misleading, for researchers and practitioners dealing with wicked problems. The implications of these insights were not fully elaborated. Later analysts and practitioners have attempted to spell out in more detail the situations in which the conventional scientific-technical assumptions and processes are inadequate and misleading, and what the alternatives may be for theory and practice. This does not mean that wicked problems cannot be tackled, it means that linear thinking and top-down solutions cannot pin down and solve the problems in a definitive and long-lasting way. In effect, public policy is a turbulent stream in which the parameters change rapidly. As Wildavsky remarked, “Past solutions create future problems faster than present troubles can be left behind” (Wildavsky, 1979, p. 70). And as Selman noted in relation to environment policymaking:

In practice, despite enormous amounts of dedication and inspiration, environmental planning only ever achieves partial success. This is due to the ‘wickedness’ of environmental issues, deriving not only from their technical complexity, but also from the multiple arenas where they are contested and debated. As capacities are built to overcome one barrier, another one arises; as progress is made toward sustainability, so the finishing line recedes.

(Selman, 1999, pp. 168–169)

The wicked problems framework resonates more positively with some public policy approaches than others. On the one hand, rationalist approaches to public policy and administration, influenced by economics and public choice, have tended to adopt linear analytic methods and standardized solutions. They prefer to ignore or downplay the politics of disruptive controversies, instead emphasizing the potential role of scientific models and data analytics for improving decision making. On the other hand, constructivist approaches to policy studies generally tend to emphasize the diversity and primacy of stakeholder and practitioner perspectives. In cases where entrenched differences among stakeholders and decision makers are impeding progress, constructivists emphasize the role of dialogue and conflict resolution as methods that facilitate negotiation of a pathway toward managing the policy challenges. There are traps and blind spots in all policy analysis and decision-making processes, including the incremental search for lowest-common-denominator agreement. The fundamental challenge arising from the wicked problems framework is for the policy analyst to focus carefully and reflexively on the nature of the policy problem, its evolution and interaction, the experience and knowledge of relevant stakeholders, and the prospects for effective action.


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