Wicked problems are those that are complex, open-ended and unpredictable. They include global warming, social disadvantage and terrorism. These problems are often presented as so intractable that they defy definition and solution. A paper in Policy and Society proposes a more nuanced analysis, arguing that complex problems vary in the extent of their wickedness.
The wicked problem discourse emerged in the 1970s from a critique of rational approaches to complex policy issues. The types of problems tackled by science and engineering were seen as ‘tame’ or ‘benign’ as their elements were identifiable and the solutions verifiable. By comparison, social problems are ‘ill-defined’ and resist an agreed solution. They are therefore seen as ‘wicked’
Some have found this analysis helpful in explaining the difficulties as to why so many policies in complex areas do not achieve their goals and have unforeseen effects. These difficulties include:
The concept of wicked problems has drawn attention to complexity, indefinability and intractability. The paper argues this conceptualisation also has significant shortcomings which limit its usefulness.
The shortcomings include:
The paper proposes a typology for understanding problems based on two elements of wicked situations:
These form the basis of a matrix as seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Alternative types of complex problems
The vertical dimension reflects the nature of the problem and its level of intractability. There are three possibilities:
The horizontal dimension concerns the key stakeholders who can affect the tractability of the problem. The main consideration is the propensity of those involved to address the problem. There are three alternatives:
Nine possibilities are presented as a continuum in Figure 1. At the bottom left corner are tame problems. This where both the problem and the solution are clear, and stakeholders readily share knowledge and have congruent interests. At the other extreme, wicked problems are where neither the problems nor the solutions are known, and where both relevant knowledge and interests are fragmented.
In between are other possibilities from moderately tame to moderately wicked. These can be assessed by calibrating where each sits on each of the dimensions.
A problem is more likely to be wicked if several of the following conditions are present:
A key obstacle to making progress with wicked problems has been the tendency to see them as all the same when it comes their wickedness. This has led to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to tackling them. The result is that any single problem situation has little chance of being addressed effectively.
Distinctions can be drawn between different forms of problems and the degree of their wickedness. This in itself will not solve problems. However, it can help identify appropriate interventions based on more knowledge of the issues and the relationships among key participants.
Wicked and less wicked problems: a typology and a contingency framework – John Alford and Brian Head, Policy and Society, August 2017
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