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

Catrien J.A.M. Termeer*, Art Dewulf, Robbert Biesbroek

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)

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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-179
JournalPolicy and Society
Volume38
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2019

Keywords

  • decision-making
  • Governance
  • policy
  • wicked problems

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