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Archive for October 21st, 2010

The Political Debate and the Nature of Wicked Problems

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It’s October and the 2010 midterm elections are upon us.  All media is filled with political debate.  Questions and answers.  Questions and answers – and then follow-up questions and more answers.

When I hear the informed electorate asking questions of politicians at these town-hall style debates it seems that the electorate think there is an easy, correct, or definitive answer  to many of these public policy questions.  Are public and social policy problems somehow a different class of problem than what citizens are used to, familiar with, and solve on an everyday basis?

Here is something to consider.  Many, if not the majority of public and social policy problems, are properly in the category of what has been classified as Wicked Problems.  Here is a brief definition from “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
HORST W. J. RITTEL – Professor of the Science of Design, University of California, Berkeley
MELVIN M. WEBBER – Professor of City Planning, University of California, Berkeley


Want an example of a wicked problem?  Should we stop trying to teach the unteachable?

How about this Wicked Problem and candidate solution by Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven.
The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty

When it comes down to it, these are the 10 characteristics of a Wicked Problem

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan Read the rest of this entry »
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