On Prioritizing Policy Innovation: Wicked or Tame Problems?

Friday, May 15, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I shared the 10 criteria that define wicked problems (See: On Wicked Problems) and ended with a comment about how it's important to define policy innovation and that garnering a better understanding of the nature of the problems we are trying to solve (or ought to be trying to solve) is an important step in that direction.

I felt as though stepping back for a minute to lay the ground work in that regard was important because I'm of the view that there is a fundamental difference between pursuing a policy innovation agenda that prioritizes the creation, experimentation and application of novel solutions aimed at wicked problems and one that prioritizes incremental improvements aimed at tame problems.

Admittedly, this may be a false dichotomy. In actuality, there is nothing that physically precludes governments from pursuing both agendas concurrently and in complimentary ways. That said, I want to walk down that path today as a bit as a thought experiment because I think that how people answer should inform not only the types of innovation infrastructure (e.g. Innovation Labs, Innovation Contests, etc) we build but also how we evaluate whether or not those pursuits are producing the desired results. In many ways I think this is akin to policy innovator's dilemma and the notion that policy makers need to choose between disruptive and sustaining policy innovation options (See: Policy Innovator's Dilemma).

So, here's the hypothetical question I want you to ask yourself: if governments could only pursue one policy innovation agenda – one focused on novel ideas aimed at wicked problems or one focused on incremental improvements aimed at tame ones – which one ought they focus on and why?