The nine lives of uncertainty in decision-making about complex governance issues

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paperAcademic


In a governance context, decisions are made by both public and private actors, often in interaction with each other. Decision making about complex governance issues are fraught with uncertainties about the current state of affairs, the relevant set of decision alternatives, the reactions of other governance actors, or the future developments likely to affect the issue under consideration. Uncertainty comes in different kinds, however, and its conceptualization has been fragmented across different fields of study. We argue that the nature of uncertainty consists of three types. Policy analysis involving modelling complex systems such as transport or ecological systems have led to distinguishing between epistemic uncertainty (involving lack of knowledge about a particular
system) and ontological uncertainty (irreducible unpredictability is due to inherently complex system behaviour).
Studies on the interactive and political processes of decision-making have identified ambiguity as an uncertainty of a rather different nature, consisting of conflicts between fundamentally different frames about the issue at hand. Scholars have also argued that there is it important to differentiate between different objects of uncertainty. First, substantive uncertainty, or uncertainty about the content of decisions or policy issues. In addition, network governance scholars have pointed to the importance of strategic uncertainty which refers to the uncertainty about the actions of other actors in the strategic game of decision-making, and institutional uncertainty, which refers to uncertainty about the rules of the game in decision-making. In this paper, we bring together different strands of the uncertainty literatures to present a novel analytical framework that allows to combine the three different natures of uncertainty (epistemic, ontological and ambiguity) and the three objects of uncertainty (substantive, strategic and institutional), providing a comprehensive framework for analysing and addressing the nine lives of uncertainty in decision-making. We exemplify how the nine different types allow for tailored intervention strategies to deal with the different types of uncertainty.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Event3rd International Conference on Public Policy - Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, Singapore
Duration: 28 Jun 201730 Jun 2017


Conference3rd International Conference on Public Policy
Abbreviated titleICPP


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