Forty years of wicked problems literature: forging closer links to policy studies

Brian W. Head at Policy and Society: “Rittel and Webber boldly challenged the conventional assumption that ‘scientific’ approaches to social policy and planning provide the most reliable guidance for practitioners and researchers who are addressing complex, and contested, social problems.

This provocative claim, that scientific-technical approaches would not ‘work’ for complex social issues, has engaged policy analysts, academic researchers and planning practitioners since the 1970s. Grappling with the implications of complexity and uncertainty in policy debates, the first generation of ‘wicked problem’ scholars generally agreed that wicked issues require correspondingly complex and iterative approaches. This tended to quarantine complex ‘wicked’ problems as a special category that required special collaborative processes.

Most often they recommended the inclusion of multiple stakeholders in exploring the relevant issues, interests, value differences and policy responses. More than four decades later, however, there are strong arguments for developing a second-generation approach which would ‘mainstream’ the analysis of wicked problems in public policy. While continuing to recognize the centrality of complexity and uncertainty, and the need for creative thinking, a broader approach would make better use of recent public policy literatures on such topics as problem framing, policy design, policy capacity and the contexts of policy implementation….(More)”.