Health & Social Policy

The “Wicked” Problem

An Excerpt from Building Effective Collaborative Governance in Juvenile Justice: A Framework for Success in Social Policy Reform

By Rylee Pluta and Tracy Johnson

In 1973, theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber revolutionized public management through the introduction and analysis of a new term, “wicked” problem, that highlights the complexities of public policy problems. According to the authors, “wicked” problems differ from the “tame” problems of natural science in that they are undefinable, subjective, and lack a clear, correct, and a straightforward solution. These dynamic, fluid, and contiguous problems cut across multiple policy domains in which no single system or system actor can either understand or resolve in a vacuum. For example, education reform as a wicked problem cross-cuts housing and neighborhood design, availability and quality of healthcare, incarceration and crime, and food and water quality, to name a few.

Climate change as a wicked problem exists within political, economic, cultural, and legal systems across multiple countries. Poverty as a wicked problem is the result of centuries of governmental and economic policies that perpetuate institutional racism, while simultaneously the problem for (or symptom of) other related wicked problems. The “wicked” problem’s unique, unstructured, cross-dimensional nature makes traditional problem-solving approaches and bureaucratic public management techniques inadequate. 

Acknowledging these complexities, scholars Edward Weber and Anne Khademian (2008) build upon existing research to argue that network and collaborative governance may be a sufficient public management approach to address wicked problems. Collaborative governance has multiple definitions debated throughout a diverse body of literature, but is best described in this context as “the linking or sharing of information, resources, activities, and capabilities by organizations in two or more sectors to achieve jointly an outcome that could not be achieved by organizations in one sector separately” (Bryson, Crosby, and Stone, 2006).

Networks can be flexible, coordinate with one another, generate extrinsic value, and share knowledge and resources to create and establish a collective capacity that would not otherwise exist (Weber and Khademian, 2008). As stated by Thompson and Perry (2006), this “achievement of shared outcomes implies synergistic processes rather than stepwise movement from one phase to another.” These ecosystems therein adopt “coordinated strategies to obtain higher joint benefits or reduce their joint harm” (Ostrom, 1990), constituting dynamic, innovative solutions better suited to dismantle and reform systemic inequities. These networks do not presume the existence of an optimal solution, however, but maintain conditions for “collaborative rationality” that ensure the legitimacy of dialogue, which is the foundation for garnering the mutual understanding and shared knowledge that make networks effective (Innes and Booher, 2018).

The full publication of Building Effective Collaborative Governance in Juvenile Justice: A Framework for Success in Social Policy Reform is available through the Baines Report with received consent from the authors. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social Widgets powered by