A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

The concept of wicked problems has served as an inspiration for research in a variety of research fields but has also contributed to conceptual confusion through the various ways in which it has been defined and used. In this special issue, a number of ontological, theoretical and methodological issues are discussed. First, while its use as a buzzword has undermined precise conceptual definition, recent work goes beyond the wicked versus tame dichotomy and conceptualizes wickedness as a matter of degree, differentiates between dimensions of wickedness and emphasizes the relational character of problem definitions. Second, new and existing governance approaches have often been unproblematically proposed as ways to solve wicked problems, while only imperfect solutions, partial solutions or small wins are achievable in practice. Third, the concept of wicked problems has had little direct impact on policy theories, and while some argue that the analysis of wicked problems should be mainstreamed in public policy thinking, others propose to reject the concept and rely on existing policy theories. Fourth, as a concept used in policy practice, wicked problems tend to provoke either paralysis or an overestimation of what policy can do about wicked problems. Possible ways forward include (1) leaving the concept behind; (2) using the wicked problems literature as knowledge base to understand when and why policy and governance approaches fail; and (3) developing dimensions of wicked problems (i.e. conflict, complexity and uncertainty) into more analytically precise research tools and linking them with more closely with contemporary policy science developments.

LanguageEnglish
Pages167-179
JournalPolicy and Society
Volume38
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2019

Fingerprint

science policy
governance
policy approach
field research
public policy
uncertainty

Keywords

  • decision-making
  • Governance
  • policy
  • wicked problems

Cite this

@article{275e718ce5ef4e1ba052e55c9d025412,
title = "A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice",
abstract = "The concept of wicked problems has served as an inspiration for research in a variety of research fields but has also contributed to conceptual confusion through the various ways in which it has been defined and used. In this special issue, a number of ontological, theoretical and methodological issues are discussed. First, while its use as a buzzword has undermined precise conceptual definition, recent work goes beyond the wicked versus tame dichotomy and conceptualizes wickedness as a matter of degree, differentiates between dimensions of wickedness and emphasizes the relational character of problem definitions. Second, new and existing governance approaches have often been unproblematically proposed as ways to solve wicked problems, while only imperfect solutions, partial solutions or small wins are achievable in practice. Third, the concept of wicked problems has had little direct impact on policy theories, and while some argue that the analysis of wicked problems should be mainstreamed in public policy thinking, others propose to reject the concept and rely on existing policy theories. Fourth, as a concept used in policy practice, wicked problems tend to provoke either paralysis or an overestimation of what policy can do about wicked problems. Possible ways forward include (1) leaving the concept behind; (2) using the wicked problems literature as knowledge base to understand when and why policy and governance approaches fail; and (3) developing dimensions of wicked problems (i.e. conflict, complexity and uncertainty) into more analytically precise research tools and linking them with more closely with contemporary policy science developments.",
keywords = "decision-making, Governance, policy, wicked problems",
author = "Termeer, {Catrien J.A.M.} and Art Dewulf and Robbert Biesbroek",
year = "2019",
month = "5",
day = "17",
doi = "10.1080/14494035.2019.1617971",
language = "English",
volume = "38",
pages = "167--179",
journal = "Policy and Society",
issn = "1449-4035",
publisher = "Routledge Taylor & Francis Group",
number = "2",

}

A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice. / Termeer, Catrien J.A.M.; Dewulf, Art; Biesbroek, Robbert.

In: Policy and Society, Vol. 38, No. 2, 17.05.2019, p. 167-179.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

TY - JOUR

T1 - A critical assessment of the wicked problem concept: relevance and usefulness for policy science and practice

AU - Termeer, Catrien J.A.M.

AU - Dewulf, Art

AU - Biesbroek, Robbert

PY - 2019/5/17

Y1 - 2019/5/17

N2 - The concept of wicked problems has served as an inspiration for research in a variety of research fields but has also contributed to conceptual confusion through the various ways in which it has been defined and used. In this special issue, a number of ontological, theoretical and methodological issues are discussed. First, while its use as a buzzword has undermined precise conceptual definition, recent work goes beyond the wicked versus tame dichotomy and conceptualizes wickedness as a matter of degree, differentiates between dimensions of wickedness and emphasizes the relational character of problem definitions. Second, new and existing governance approaches have often been unproblematically proposed as ways to solve wicked problems, while only imperfect solutions, partial solutions or small wins are achievable in practice. Third, the concept of wicked problems has had little direct impact on policy theories, and while some argue that the analysis of wicked problems should be mainstreamed in public policy thinking, others propose to reject the concept and rely on existing policy theories. Fourth, as a concept used in policy practice, wicked problems tend to provoke either paralysis or an overestimation of what policy can do about wicked problems. Possible ways forward include (1) leaving the concept behind; (2) using the wicked problems literature as knowledge base to understand when and why policy and governance approaches fail; and (3) developing dimensions of wicked problems (i.e. conflict, complexity and uncertainty) into more analytically precise research tools and linking them with more closely with contemporary policy science developments.

AB - The concept of wicked problems has served as an inspiration for research in a variety of research fields but has also contributed to conceptual confusion through the various ways in which it has been defined and used. In this special issue, a number of ontological, theoretical and methodological issues are discussed. First, while its use as a buzzword has undermined precise conceptual definition, recent work goes beyond the wicked versus tame dichotomy and conceptualizes wickedness as a matter of degree, differentiates between dimensions of wickedness and emphasizes the relational character of problem definitions. Second, new and existing governance approaches have often been unproblematically proposed as ways to solve wicked problems, while only imperfect solutions, partial solutions or small wins are achievable in practice. Third, the concept of wicked problems has had little direct impact on policy theories, and while some argue that the analysis of wicked problems should be mainstreamed in public policy thinking, others propose to reject the concept and rely on existing policy theories. Fourth, as a concept used in policy practice, wicked problems tend to provoke either paralysis or an overestimation of what policy can do about wicked problems. Possible ways forward include (1) leaving the concept behind; (2) using the wicked problems literature as knowledge base to understand when and why policy and governance approaches fail; and (3) developing dimensions of wicked problems (i.e. conflict, complexity and uncertainty) into more analytically precise research tools and linking them with more closely with contemporary policy science developments.

KW - decision-making

KW - Governance

KW - policy

KW - wicked problems

U2 - 10.1080/14494035.2019.1617971

DO - 10.1080/14494035.2019.1617971

M3 - Article

VL - 38

SP - 167

EP - 179

JO - Policy and Society

T2 - Policy and Society

JF - Policy and Society

SN - 1449-4035

IS - 2

ER -