Yesterday I gave a presentation introducing a new discussion guide designed to help people deliberate over the issue of childhood drinking. I am happy to say the event went very well and there were a lot of people in attendance (more than 125, by my count).

Me outside my talk

Me outside my talk

I opened the talk with a discussion of wicked problems. Among many of my colleagues in the dialog and deliberation field, wicked problems are old hat and not very interesting. However, among more normal folks, the idea never fails to generate energy and very interesting “ah-ha!” moments as people ponder the implications.

That was what I saw yesterday, as people nodded their heads and their facial expressions betrayed discovery.

Ordinary Problems

A lot of problems in public life that communities face are technical in nature. How large should the dam be?  How do we plow snow most efficiently? How should we invest the City’s retirement funds? These are the kinds of problems that it is best to ask experts to address. They can tell us what the best, right answer is and then our political leaders can drive the appropriate solutions.

Other problems are educational in nature. Some people don’t know that they shouldn’t park on certain streets in snowy weather and plow operations get fouled up. Other people are not aware of the services available to them as low-income residents, so they do without things they need. These kinds of problems can also be solved in straightforward ways by getting more information out to the right people (not to say they are easy to solve, just straightforward).

Still other problems are just political problems, or engineering problems, or scientific problems.

Wicked Problems

Then there are wicked problems — these are often problems that beset communities over and over. Persistent poverty is a wicked problem. So is persistent crime. What we do about health care as a community (or nation) is a wicked problem.

Wicked problems were first formally defined and described by a pair of planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973:

Now that . . . relatively easy problems [like shelter clean water, and roads] have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. . . . A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through . . . systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent reexamination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet. . . .

As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning – and especially those of policy or social planning – are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved – over and over again.)

What Wicked Problems Look Like

Rittel and Webber identify ten characteristics of wicked problems. That’s a lot of characteristics to keep in mind, and many are in fact corollaries of one another, so I tend to simplify it a bit.

Here are the key factors I usually talk about:

  • There is no agreement on the cause of the problem, or the cause is not clear
  • There is no definitive solution to the problem
  • Every solution has trade offs
  • Any solution will take multiple actors (e.g. community groups, individuals, and government)

It boils down to this: Wicked problems are so intractable because they involve conflicts between values and every solution has a downside.

For instance, one contemporary wicked problem is what to do about the possibility of terrorism on U.S. soil. We don’t agree on the cause — is it radical Islam, is it porous borders, is it oppression of developed nations, or something else? There is no definitive solution — will jailing all potential terrorists do the trick, or deporting them, or how about educating people around the globe about the freedoms America represents? Every solution has trade offs — for example, if we drastically restrict air travel that may be effective but at the cost of curtailing our fundamental freedom of movement. And, any solution will take multiple actors — government can’t just do it themselves, not can individuals just be more watchful on their own.

Solving And Re-Solving Wicked Problems

We seem to be destined to solve and re-solve wicked problems, precisely because we have to re-strike a social covenant each time we face the problem. In the terrorism example, in 2001 we were willing to live with sudden dramatic travel restrictions in pursuit of security. Today, in 2010, our willingness to go along with that deal is not as wholehearted.

For communities (and nations) to face wicked problems, we simply must deliberate together and weigh the options.  This is not an educational question, but a deal-making question. We must decide together what deals we will strike. Otherwise, we will be faced with imposed solutions from leaders that have tepid support at best.

It has been my honor to work in various ways on exactly these kinds of questions over my career, exploring and articulating the values trade-offs inherent in difficult public problems. It is rewarding, and sometimes difficult, work. But it is work that we in communities will need to keep plugging away at.

The problems we solve today will be back later – not because we did a bad job solving them, but because circumstances change.

Because they are wicked problems.


By the way, here is the presentation I used at my talk, in case you are curious: