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Too many ‘wicked problems’: how science, policy and politics can work together

Leave “wicked” to the witches and let’s get on with the job of policy research. Witches image from

Wicked problems, so we are told, are everywhere. Climate change, conflict, an ageing population, obesity… the list goes on. The debate over asylum seekers, difficult and important and politically charged as it is, is the latest to be categorised in this way.

Researchers talk and write about these “wicked” problems all the time. The term has become a kind of catch-all, a shorthand used to describe the big challenges facing Australia and the world, and the role of research responding to these challenges.

Policy-makers are equally fond of the term – in 2007, the Australian Public Service Commission released a guide to “Tackling Wicked Problems” as part of its series on Contemporary Government Challenges. Along with climate change and obesity, the Commission added indigenous disadvantage and land degradation to its list of the most pressing problems.

The Commission noted the continuing “rise and recognition of wicked policy problems”, pointing out that since Rittel and Webber coined the term in the 1970s, there has been a “steady increase” in discussions of, and research into, wicked problems.

Now we even have climate change classed as a “super-wicked problem”.

But where has all this discussion and work got us? Why, despite the fact that lots of smart people – in academia and government – have been thinking about wicked problems for 40 years, do we feel just as stuck as ever?

Perhaps the answer lies deep within the nature of the problems themselves, and the ways in which we expect policy-makers to deal with them. If this is the case, labelling the big problems that society faces “wicked” is only going to make things worse.

Witches are wicked. Even though the Public Service Commission’s report is at pains to define wicked as “resistant to change” rather than “evil”, the word still carries overtones of malfeasance and irrationality. It also betrays a sense of disappointment that we are still stuck with things that – surely – we should have shaken off long ago? We hear the same pejorative tone when people talk about the “pathologies” of the policy process.

The Commission’s report usefully discusses the characteristics of wicked problems, drawing on the burgeoning literature – among other things, they are complex, hard to define, multi-causal and often require changing people’s behaviour. Attempts to address them can lead to unforeseen consequences. There is no definitive “solution” or fix.

Being clearer about the dimensions and characteristics of a particular policy problem or question can surely help in identifying effective responses. It can also help researchers to understand how their work can inform the policy process. But why does everyone insist on bundling up these characteristics and labelling them “wicked”?

The ancient Greeks knew that uncertainty and complexity were facts of life, to be lived with rather than managed away. As was irresolvable disagreement over values and ideas.

Indeed, to think that human knowledge or technology could ever transcend plurality was a prime example of hubris. And besides, isn’t a commitment to this very plurality a core part of our modern democracies?

American academic Roger Pielke Jr reminds us that many questions have to be resolved through politics. This may take time and may on the surface seem messy, but it is not a bad thing, not a failing of “rational” decision-making or “evidence-based policy”. It’s the way we get things done in a pluralistic world.

Pielke quotes American intellectual Walter Lippmann, who famously said that “the goal of politics is not to get people to think alike. The goal of politics is to get people who think differently to act alike”.

Pielke has written more consistently and eloquently than most about the relationship between science, policy and politics. He makes it clear that in some circumstances, uncertainty is fundamentally irreducible and that the politicisation of policy is unavoidable and in fact desirable. This is of course not to say that things couldn’t be improved.

Science in particular finds itself in the slightly sticky position of claiming to be central to the solution to the world’s most “wicked” problems – climate change, food security, global health, sustainable economic growth, etc. – but then also complaining about the “irrationality” of political decisions and the politicisation of science. (See for example the speech earlier this year by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate and President of the UK Royal Society – the speech, and Pielke’s response, are on his blog.)

Justifying investment in science based on its ability to “solve” such problems is setting everyone – scientists and policy-makers alike – up for a fall. But the problem goes deeper than just the risk of raising unrealistic expectations, to a threat against democracy itself.

Eminent scientists – such as James Lovelock of Gaia fame – have argued that the overwhelming complexity of issues such as climate change, and the stupidity and “inertia of humans” mean that it “may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while”.

There is a broader trend here – the most recent Lowy Institute poll showed that Australians – and particularly younger Australians – seem “rather indifferent to democracy”. Writing recently in these pages, John Keane reported on a growing “ambivalence about parliamentary democracy”, with surveyed CEOs hugely critical of the US administration and Congress, and longing for the certainty provided by the Chinese government.

What can be done? Keane suggests that it might be time for a “call to democratic arms”. Fifty years on from Bernard Crick’s classic, perhaps we do need a few more doing an “in defence of politics”. We need better democracy, not less democracy.

And this is not just an issue for government. Keane has previously addressed “hyper-complexity” and described how universities can turn it into a positive rather than a negative. First and foremost, this requires humility, but universities can play an important role in supporting “the public ethos of pluralism”.

In a different kind of way, Paul Humphries comes to a similar conclusion when he suggests that we have to admit that in trying to “manage” a system as complex as the Murray-Darling Basin, we will make mistakes. The outcomes of our decisions will necessarily be less than perfect, but that is actually okay.

So let’s also agree to stop using the term “wicked problems”. If everything becomes “wicked” or “super-wicked”, then everyone will just give up. We need to work at our democracy, to encourage bright young people – in research and in government – to be filled with enthusiasm for spending their lives working on the big difficult problems of the time.

Progress doesn’t mean getting everyone to think the same, and the messiness and plurality of democratic politics isn’t irrational. Sure, things could be better, but calling them “wicked” doesn’t do much to help.

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