Navigating wicked problems

NAECJulia Stockdale-Otárola, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate

Knowing there is a single clear solution to any problem is certainly a comforting idea. As children we would raise our hands in class to answer increasingly difficult questions – always hoping that we would “get it right”. But sometimes the question itself is ambiguous and the list of potential solutions endless.

Such is the case with wicked problems.

The term isn’t a moral judgement. Wicked problems are dynamic, poorly structured, persistent and social in nature. Difficult to define, highly intertwined with other social issues, and involving many actors, wicked problems reflect the complexity of the world we live in. For example, think of policy challenges such as climate change, immigration, poverty, nutrition, education, or homelessness. Each issue involves multiple drivers, impacting various policy domains and levels of government. To further complicate matters, any intervention could set off a chain of new unintended consequences. That’s a lot of moving parts.

All these factors make it difficult for anyone to agree on what the actual problem is, where it is rooted, who is responsible, and how to best address it. The scope of the problem is also vague. Entire systems can be involved in a seemingly local or regional problem like mass transit.

Clearly coming to grips with the issue is challenge enough, so how do we go about making decisions? So far, traditional approaches have proven unsatisfactory. In fact, many of these wicked problems seem to only get worse as we try to solve them.

The complexities involved force us to rethink our problem-solving strategy. Instead of trying to find a final solution we need to recognise that these challenges can, generally speaking, at best be managed but not solved. At least, not solved in a static sense. That doesn’t mean the situation can’t be improved. To some, it might even be “solved” depending on how the problem is defined. The bottom line is that we need to become more flexible to better manage the challenges posed by wicked problems. Policies should be adaptive, so that they can change as the issue evolves over time. We also need to avoid becoming too attached to our own solutions. They need to be dynamic, to change along with the problem at hand.

From the outset we need to look at problems more holistically. An increasing number of new approaches are developing in different fields to offer solutions. For example, complexity science is naturally adaptive as it looks at the way in which systems interact. To date this strategy has been helpful for example in improving traffic management. To improve traffic safety analytics techniques are applied to anticipate risks and traffic jams, and improve flow. Implementing pilot projects can also be useful in addressing wicked problems, when affordable, as they involve continuous monitoring and opportunity for adjustments. Though no magic formula exists, these approaches can help capture some of the intricacies of wicked problems.

Governments have already started using some of these adaptive strategies. Singapore’s government has introduced a mix of policy approaches to tackle wicked problems. For example, a matrix approach was implemented to help departments better share information and work horizontally; new departments reflecting the thorniest issues were established; and a computerised tool to help mitigate systemic risks. Though the island has the advantage of size, facilitating the implementation of new approaches, their experiences may provide some useful insights into best practices.

The OECD has also been looking at policy challenges as wicked problems. In a 2009 workshop on policy responses to societal concerns, Sandra Batie and David Schweikhardt of Michigan State University analysed trade liberalisation as a wicked problem. In this case, the role of stakeholders is typical of a wicked problem: different groups are likely to have differing ideas about what the real problem is and what its causes are. Some would say the issue is making the economy as open as possible while for others national sovereignty or protecting local producers may be more important.

Unlike a tame problem where scientifically based protocols guide the choice of solution, answers to the question of whether more trade liberalisation is needed depend on the judgements and values of whoever is answering. Many stakeholders will simply reject outright arguments to justify trade liberalisation based on neoclassical economics. Batie and Schweikhardt argued that the role of science, including economic science, is not to narrow the range of options to one (in this case trade liberalisation), but rather to expand the options for addressing the issue(s), and to highlight the consequences, including distributional consequences, of alternative options.

Wicked problems remind us that it isn’t always easy, or even possible, to “get it right”. There isn’t always a solution that can be implemented once and last forever. But that’s okay. We just need to stop thinking about achieving optimal solutions and learn how to sustain adaptive solutions.

Useful links

The OECD organised a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning; 29/09 afternoon; 30/09 morning

Please consult the draft Agenda for more information, and a preliminary background paper “Insights into Complexity and Policy” regrouping articles from the insights blog and other sources.

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  1. Dr Anthony Ablong - 05/10/2016 Reply

    Julia’s article certainly brings into focus the usefulness of some problem solving techniques that tend to create complexity from simplicity. I am not sure that labelling a technique is warranted as doing so adds to the ‘spin’ that surrounds problem solving techniques.
    May I offer a ‘tried and true’ approach that has been used by many decision-makers called ‘prototyping’ : start with a simple solution to the problem then apply the solution and observe the results. Many iterations with many incremental solutions could follow before the ‘appropriate solution’ is found. In this process, entirely new solutions could spin-off from the process but fundamental to this is have the decison maker use the ‘tried and true’ KISS (keep it simple stupid) attitude.

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