Professor Brian Head




This presentation has several sections.  I will briefly outline the conceptual frameworks around ‘wicked’ problems (WPs) – seen as a class of intractable, complex and contested issues. No doubt the bundle of problems identified in a society as important but intractable will change across time and space. I will focus on some shortcomings in the scholarship about the theory and practice of addressing ‘wicked’ problems, before providing some suggested ways forward.

1. The definition of WPs comes from Rittel & Webber (1973) who criticised rationalist policy and planning orthodoxies by distinguishing between those problems that are ‘solvable’ through technical R&D (e.g. bridges, pharmaceuticals), and those social problems that are fundamentally driven by conflicting human values and interests (e.g. urban regeneration, poverty reduction, gender equity). The very scope/nature of each WP is contested, giving rise to a range of incompatible recipes for how to address each WP.

2. With the recent boom in usage of ‘wicked’ terminology, there is a danger that every complex issue is seen as ‘wicked’. This leads to semantic confusion and sloppy analysis.

3. Much of the recent literature sees WPs as inherently intractable and very messy. Given the endless complexities on display, one could stand back and admire the cascading pattern of inconsistent perspectives. Alternatively, other accounts could show how a dominant perspective is linked to power relationships, which lock in various one-sided approaches to understanding and responding to the ‘problem’.

4. Some accounts of WPs recommend a preferred process for resolving the intractable disputes and conflicting perspectives – such as collaborative engagement and multi-stakeholder deliberation. In other cases, ideological preference for certain policy instruments (e.g. market-based) leads some authors to seek ‘governance-at-a-distance’.  Another contrasting ‘single-best-way’ approach encourages central authority to impose a solution in the name of stability and social control.

5. By contrast, I suggest the need for a more nuanced analysis of complex problems, arguing that they vary in the extent of their wickedness, along dimensions such as their cognitive complexity and the diversity and irreconcilability of key actors involved. It should be possible to develop a typology of different forms of wicked problems on a graduated scale. Taking a contextual or situational approach, I propose a contingency framework, which could also suggest which type of multi-actor process is suitable to which type of problem.

6. This style of analysis is complemented by a more realistic standard of success in dealing with WPs. To call for the ‘solving’ of very difficult WPs (e.g. child protection, family violence) is to invite failure. In fact, we do not ‘solve’ wicked problems so much as make progress towards better ‘managing’ them and hopefully improving the outcomes.


You can listen to the seminar here.


About School Research Seminar Series

This series brings together the School’s research community and domestic as well as international leaders in the field of politics and international affairs. Across each semester, the series showcases a diverse and exciting range of topics. We welcome anyone who might be interested in attending.

Please note that most of the research seminars are recorded and are available online.