T04P01 - Wicked Problems in Public Policy – From Theory to Practice

Topic : Problems and Agenda Setting

Panel Chair : Joshua Newman - joshua.newman@flinders.edu.au

Panel Second Chair : Brian Head - brian.head@uq.edu.au

Objectives and Scientific Relevance of the panel

In recent years, politicians and bureaucrats have expressed a desire to increase the use of evidence in policy-making. This narrative assumes a kind of linear, rational, or scientific trajectory for the use of knowledge in addressing policy problems – as if access to better quality information were the key to resolving important and difficult policy issues.

 

However, since the 1950s, there has been among scholars a growing dissatisfaction with the idea that some policy problems might be resolved through scientific methods or holistic design efforts – or more directly, that they might even be resolved at all. Inspired by colossal failures in social planning in the 1960s, the policy literature since the 1970s (starting with Rittel & Webber, 1973) has increasingly recognised that many issues are inherently difficult to manage or resolve, owing to increasing complexity in areas of social policy, significant differences in values, interests and perceptions, and uncertainty of outcomes and consequences that had previously gone unrecognised. This has presented something of a paradox, in that governments are increasingly demanding that policy appear to be more evidence-driven while academics (who produce much of this evidence) increasingly bring to light the challenges inherent in this task.

 

With this renewed emphasis on connecting evidence to policy, as well as the popular focus on ‘impact’ in academic research, it is time to re-examine the concept of wicked problems and the obstacles they present to linear, scientific models of policy decision-making. Are some policy problems wicked? How can the concept of wicked problems help us understand the inherent challenges of policy-making? Are some areas of policy more inclined to wickedness, or is all policy problems inherently wicked? How do complexity, uncertainty, and divergence of values and preferences intersect in processes of public policy?

 

This Panel is concerned with conceptualisations of wicked problems and the range of policy responses to wicked problems that are available to decision-makers. What are the key features of such problems? And are they really very different in nature from more routine problems? Are we developing better ways to address these wicked problems? How do approaches vary across different policy issues? How do different political-administrative cultures respond to complex challenges? Are some issues more ‘manageable’ in some institutional settings and political contexts than in other settings? Papers addressing theoretical, methodological, and practical matters in these areas are welcome.

Call for papers

Some types of policy problems have been described as messy, complex, intractable, open-ended and ‘wicked’. The policy literature since the 1970s (starting with Rittel & Webber, 1973) has increasingly recognised that many issues are inherently difficult to manage or resolve, owing to increasing complexity in areas of social policy, significant differences in values, interests and perceptions, and uncertainty of outcomes and consequences that had previously gone unrecognised.

 

This Panel is concerned with conceptualisations of wicked problems and the range of policy responses to wicked problems that are available to decision-makers. What are the key features of such problems? And are they really very different in nature from more routine problems? Are we developing better ways to address these wicked problems? How do approaches vary across different policy issues? How do different political-administrative cultures respond to complex challenges? Are some issues more ‘manageable’ in some institutional settings and political contexts than in other settings? Papers addressing theoretical, methodological, and practical matters in these areas are welcome.

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