The Political Debate and the Nature of Wicked Problems
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?http://townhall.com/columnists/WalterEWilliams/2004/05/26/managing_a_disaster/page/full/
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
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
- 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
- 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
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
- The planner has no right to be wrong
Those people who mainly deal with the sciences and with technology may not realize that there is this class of problem. Confronting Wicked Problems requires a completely different mindset than dealing with traditional problems that can be resolved to a near scientific answer that can be confirmed and validated by the majority.
Some say that “average people” (the common person) should be running the government over against the current administration which is heavily loaded with people from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
Successful government will be heavily weighted with those that can confront the Wicked Problems of our society – and know that, in fact, the problem is Wicked, and that a special heuristic is required to confront this class of problem. If those folks asking questions at Townhall political debates would clearly understand this category of Wicked Problems they may be in a position to make better choices among the candidates. They voters are the informed electorate, Right?
Summary of the nature of Wicked Problems
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
For any given tame problem, an exhaustive formulation can be stated containing all the information the problem-solver needs for understanding and solving the problem –provided he knows his “art,” of course.
This is not possible with wicked-problems. The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it. That is to say: in order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The reason is that every question asking for additional information depends upon the understanding of the problem–and its resolution–at that time. Problem understanding and problem resolution are concomitant to each other. Therefore, in order to anticipate all questions (in order to anticipate all information required for resolution ahead of time), knowledge of all conceivable solutions is required.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
In solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are criteria that tell when the or a solution has been found.
Not so with planning problems. Because (according to Proposition 1) the process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature, because there are no criteria for sufficient understanding and because there are no ends to the causal chains that link interacting open systems, the would-be planner can always try to do better. Some additional investment of effort might increase the chances of finding a better solution.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
There are conventionalized criteria for objectively deciding whether the offered solution to an equation or whether the proposed structural formula of a chemical compound is correct or false. They can be independently checked by other qualified persons who are familiar with the established criteria; and the answer will be normally unambiguous.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
For tame-problems one can determine on the spot how good a solution-attempt has been. More accurately, the test of a solution is entirely under the control of the few people who are involved and interested in the problem.
With wicked problems, on the other hand, any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded– period of time.
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
In the sciences and in fields like mathematics, chess, puzzle-solving or mechanical engineering design, the problem-solver can try various runs without penalty. Whatever his outcome on these individual experimental runs, it doesn’t matter much to the subject-system or to the course of societal affairs. A lost chess game is seldom consequential for other chess games or for non-chess-players.
With wicked planning problems, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves “traces” that cannot be undone.
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
There are no criteria which enable one to prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
Of course, for any two problems at least one distinguishing property can be found (just as any number of properties can be found which they share in common), and each of them is therefore unique in a trivial sense. But by “‘essentially unique” we mean that, despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance. Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply. There are no classes of wicked problems
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
Problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a “symptom.” In turn, it can be considered the symptom of still another, “higher level” problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
“Crime in the streets” can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, phrenologic aberrations, etc. Each of these offers a direction for attacking crime in the streets. Which one is right ? There is no rule or procedure to determine the “correct” explanation or combination of them. The reason is that in dealing with wicked problems there are several more ways of refuting a hypothesis than there are permissible in the sciences.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong
As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. This habit is based on the insight that there are no proofs to hypotheses, only potential refutations. The more a hypothesis withstands numerous attempts at refutation, the better its “corroboration” is considered to be. Consequently, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypotheses that are later refuted-so long as the author abides by the rules of the game, of course. In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions.
Read the full paper – Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning