On Wicked Problems

Friday, May 8, 2015

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

It struck me recently that while there's a lot of talk about addressing 'wicked problems' in policy spheres I've yet to hear anyone define the term beyond the relatively simplistic: they are hard problems to solve, they are complex, they have a lot of moving pieces.

Perhaps the lack of definitional clarity doesn't really matter because at their core wicked problems are defined by interdependencies and systems thinking – the idea that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of their relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation – is already the cornerstone of modern policy making.

Or is it? The omnipresent problems of bureaucratic inertia, regulatory capture and silos could be taken as evidence that systems thinking isn't quite as pervasive as some may think it is.

Perhaps its time to take a step back and do some definitional work. What do we actually mean when we talk about wicked problems?

Wicked Problems Defined

According to Rittel and Webber's 1973 paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, 'wicked problems' are actually defined by ten specific characteristics:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. 

The formulation of a wicked problem is itself the problem because the specification of the problem is a specification of the direction in which treatment is considered.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. 

Wicked problems have no natural stopping points but rather those who are working on them have to pick and choose when to act, when to withdraw and when to do nothing.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad. 

Many people are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgements are likely to differ widely based on their interests, value-sets, and ideological predilections.

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

Every solution generates waves of consequences that extend over an extended period of time. As a result the full consequences of a given solution cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and there is no way to trace all the waves through all of the affected parties.

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. 

Every implemented solution has consequences and cannot be undone. Whenever actions are effectively irreversible and whenever the half-lives of the consequences are long, every trial counts. And every attempt to reverse a decision to correct for undesired or unforeseen consequences poses another set of wicked problems, which are in turn subject to the same dilemmas.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

There are no criteria by which one can prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered. Feasible plans of action relies on realistic judgements, the capacity to appraise novel or foreign ideas and the willingness to select a given course of action.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. 

The art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply. There are no classes of wicked problems. Despite seeming similarities among wicked problems, one can never be certain that the particulars of a problem do not override commonalities with other problems already dealt with.

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

Marginal improvement does not guarantee overall improvement. For example, improving an administrative process may result in reduced cost or ease of operation but at the same time it becomes more difficult to make structural changes to the organization. Technical perfection reinforces organizational patterns and tends to increase the cost of change.

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. 

Often the analyst's "world view" is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy and, therefore, in resolving a wicked problem.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong

Policy makers are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate.

To be continued ... 

In short, I think we need to start to better define what we actually mean when we talk about policy innovation and felt that helping garner a better understanding of the nature of the problems we are talking about (or should be talking about) in the context of policy innovation is a concrete step towards doing that. More to come.