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Wicked Problems

Updated July 20, 2021
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According to the reading, Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management, a “wicked” problem is one in which there is no easy solution to rectify or eliminate. There are varying levels of wicked problems. (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 712). “The more complex and diverse the situation, the more wicked the problem” (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 718). You don’t solve wicked problems as much as you come together to find a temporary solution (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 718).

This is what makes ‘wicked’ problems so difficult to manage and to add to the difficulty, there doesn’t seem to be a source of where it all started so one could learn from that mistake and rectify any future issues. “The diverse sources of policy divergence on complex value-laden issues underline the point that there is no “root cause” of complexity, diversity, uncertainty, and ambiguity—hence, there is no root cause of “wickedness” and no single best approach to tackling such problems ” (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 715).

So how can public administration assist with wicked problems? First, the “wicked” problem should be looked at since there are variations of difficulty for each problem and the approach for each problem should be different. Head and Alford in its “Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management” states, “We argue, first, that there are degrees of “wickedness,” which can be understood by reference to multiple dimensions. We contend that while conclusive “solutions” are very rare, it is possible to frame partial, provisional courses of action against wicked problems. We then consider how the structures and processes of public policy and management complicate the task of understanding these problems and of designing responses to them.” (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 712).

Head and Alford in its “Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management” added a variety of ways that public administration can handle ‘wicked’ problems.

Because ‘wicked’ problems are complex, so are their solutions. To better illustrate some of the ways we as public servants can assist with managing these issues, here is a quick summary of some approaches, suggestions, and ideas:

One approach is a “systems theory” process. Looking at the big picture and not just the actual issue to assist in dealing with a wicked problem. For example, with homelessness, one should also look at mental health, childhood trauma, substance abuse, etc. (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 713). It is not just about tackling the problem itself, but the issues surrounding it. One ‘wicked’ problem could be tied to other ‘wicked’ problems. (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 713).

“Wicked” problems must not be managed in a scientific way, like in the ‘orthodox’ way of looking at public administration. There needs to be a more human approach to dealing with these problems. In addition, there needs to be a more objective way of looking at the issues.

Head and Alford also implied that the hierarchical ways that Weber and Taylor discussed in their theories during the ‘orthodox’ period are not going to work in tackling ‘wicked’ problems (Shafritz & Hyde, 2016). There needs to be more of an even playing field, with no top-down approach, rather a more lateral approach. For example, with homelessness, our community has a collaboration made up of city representative, leaders, and community members to address the issues that come with this “wicked” problem. We meet quarterly to discuss funding, resources, and other ways to assist and alleviate this issue.

While new public management (NPM) may work better, it is still a work in progress. NPM does have an element of managerialism, and that can divide agencies and resources meant to help tackle an issue (Head & Alford, 2013, pp. 719-21).

In conclusion, there are a variety of ways to assist with wicked problems. They include: bringing in other points of view, being flexible about wicked problems and approaches, solutions, and other aspects to the issue, collaborations and shared understandings, better understanding, better cohesiveness, better implementation, power in numbers, better communication, better relationships/trust/commitment (Head & Alford, 2013, pp. 722-28). Head and Alford added, “The policy literature suggests that what counts as a problem and what counts as a solution are heavily shaped by institutional history and stakeholder perspectives (e.g., Kingdon, 1995; Sabatier, 2007). The ideas and practices underpinning different views of policy problems and solutions are only partially shaped by scientific knowledge” (Head & Alford, 2013, p. 717).

References

Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2013). Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711–739. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095399713481601

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