Thorbjørn Mann 2021

The claim we want to examine, as stated by proposed approaches (methods, techniques, perspectives): “This approach can be used to tackle WP’s” seems to accept the understanding of WP’s — the original Rittel/Webber one or a slightly different one of later interpreters, as well as a common understanding of ‘tackle‘ as not only ‘trying’ but actually achieving the development of a ‘solution’ to problems described as WP’s: ‘solving’ such problems. It was already pointed out in the first post of this series that of course any group is entitled to ‘tackle‘ (understood as ‘trying to solve’) any problem with any approach it deems appropriate. The question then is whether the claim actually can be seen as a believable promise that a problem with the WP properties will be solved usingthe approach or method. (The possibility that the very concepts of ‘problem’, WP, ‘solving’ these, etc. might themselves need critical scrutiny was be taken up in a the second post of the series).

So what are the criteria that might be used to determine the merit or validity of a claim of the above nature? Put crudely: what would make a client confident to hire a company using an approach X claiming that the approach will solve the client’s WP?  Would a first step be to look for answers to the question of how the proponents of the approach would respond to each of the mutually accepted and understood WP properties? Two questions: 

a) If the respective property is seen as a significant obstacle to the achievement of a solution‘ to WP’s, what will enable X to overcome / respond to that obstacle?


b) What if the WP property is serious, what are its implications for application of approach X? E.g.: If the property requires an adaptation of the approach or the general understanding of ‘solution’: what would those adaptations look like? 

What other critical question might be asked? The attempt to examine a few competing approach ‘brands’ might help improve this first set of questions. 

The examination of the answers — their generality or specificity, the strength of supporting evidence  or argument, and fit to the problem at hand —  might help to assess the merit of the claim, even if it may not be sufficient to establish a sound basis for preferring one approach X from a competing method Y. This is, in essence, an invitation to entities aiming to work on the world’s WP’s, to contribute their response.

Not being a representative or promoter of a particular ‘brand of this kind, but feeling obliged to offer an example of what answers to these questions might look like, I will sketch a few sample answers from a less controversial ‘approach’: the predominant political parliamentary process. The answers are not intended as a comprehensive set of possible responses, but to clarify what such responses might look like, and start the discussion:

Some potential responses of the ‘parliamentary process’ (‘PP’) as a problem-solving ‘approach’, to the WP properties: 

  • No definitive problem formulation

The PP accepts ‘problems’ on its ‘agenda’ as the justification for proposed ‘solutions’ in the form of proposed ‘bills’ that aim to remedy them. That is, problems statements dealt with as stated by the legitimate participants in the process (elected representatives of defined constituencies). Such statements may be questioned and debated in the subsequent discussion prior to a decision. That is, the issues of what problem formulations will be entered for discussion and consideration is entirely the task of the participants (though they may be responding to statements in the media and public domain).

  • Every wicked problem is essential unique:

Each ‘bill’ for legislative action is accepted without regard to its uniqueness or similarity to other cases, though it may have to be stated in formal terms defined by procedural rules, terminology, and conventions. 

  • Any ‘solutions’ for WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 

The terms ‘true or false’, ‘good, bad’ etc. may be used in the discussion of proposed measures, but the outcome of the process is (sidestepping this issue?) is simply ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’. 

  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as part of, or as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.

The debate offers the opportunity for presenting such considerations. The issue may best be included in provisions or justification statements for introducing bills for decision: these should include evidence of having explored different explanations or underlying problems of which the stated reason of the bill could be a mere symptom. 

While the issue of ‘tests’ (or their substitutions by systemic prediction or simulation models) may be and perhaps ought to be more forcefully entered into in the debate of a proposal, the viability of proposed legal actions is left to the judgment of each participant. (In theory, unless constrained by factors such as ‘party discipline’).

  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’.
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations that can be brought to bear on WP’s.

If this means that the process should deliberately be kept open to new ideas and ‘operations’, it of course applies to the phase of development of solutions before they are presented to the decision-making body for approval or rejection, which then does rely on agreed-upon procedural rules. The debate itself remains open to offering new ideas, or they may be assigned to special groups for more systematic analysis.

  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.

In PP practice, solution proposals are simply presented to parliamentary bodies for approval. The debate may make claims of having explored the entire solution space, but the support for such claims and their counter-arguments must be judged by the participants. Claims of there being ‘no alternative’ to proposed solutions are always flawed and should be avoided: there is always at least one alternative: that of ‘doing nothing’. 

  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule for efforts to deal with them.

This being true for all possible approaches, the question becomes one of adopting meaningful and practical ‘problem-external’ stopping rules. Common examples in parliamentary bodies are the rule of ‘no more comments / objections’ serving as triggers for proceeding to the decision-making (e.g. voting) phase, or agreed-upon simple time limitations. Provisions like the ‘filibuster’, pretending to ensure that there will be enough time to present ‘all’ concerns for ‘due consideration’, should be amended with rules preventing mere repetitions of arguments already heard.

  • Every WP is essentially unique. 

This feature should be seen as a warning against relying exclusively on precedent cases for the justification of proposed solutions: again, it is a suggestion for the debate to explicitly examine the unique aspects of the problem the solution claims to address.

  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ 

Like other WP properties, in the PP,  this should be seen as ‘stock’ reminder for the debate to address.

  • The WP-planner hasno right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

The issue of accountability for actions taken or not taken by parliamentary bodies is a perennial one. Traditional provisions of holding representatives or officials by the threat of denying re-election, or (for more egregious issues: removal from office) arguably are in need of improvement. Especially in view of other rules such as term limits: If representatives can only one serve a single term, or two terms, there is no accountability remedy for flawed actions during the ‘last’ term. There is no logical reason against the parliamentary system making such improvements. 

     * The ‘distributed information’ feature of WP’s:

This admittedly serious issue is one that should — and arguably can — be addressed in the provisions for preparation of action proposals (bills) to parliamentary bodies.

* Nonlinearity, ‘loops’ and counter-intuitive patterns in the behavior of the system affected by a proposed action:

Like some other assessment aspects (such as quantitative measures of performance of proposed solutions), this issue may not be sufficiently well dealt with in traditional parliamentary debate: Rhetorical debate arguments tend to focus on simple cause-effect relationships, and — for quantitative issues — highly aggregated but therefore abstract indices such as ‘growth’, ‘Gross National Product’ or ‘Deficit spending’. Systemic analysis and representation of complex systems aspects should be made required components of the preparatory justification documentation of proposed bills, together with provisions for sending proposals ‘back to the drawing board’ to include new and insufficiently detailed concerns brought up during the debates, or in outside public comments accompanying the debate.

   * The ‘doorknob’ syndrome: 

This aspect is related to the ‘WP as a symptom of other problems’ feature. It should properly be dealt with in the preparation phase of bills, with a summary of its treatment in the justification documentation. 

   * Making decisions on behalf’ of others, such as actually affected parties: 

In the PP, this question is addressed by the assumptions 

a)   that by constituencies electing their leaders and representatives, thereby entitle them to make decisions on their behalf, and 

b)  that conflicts of interpretations in the constituency as well as conflicts in the decision-making body are adequately settled by majority rule voting. 

It must be admitted that these provisions do not meet the aim of ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ design for all parts of the constituency. In fact, the majority rule (in all its variations to ensure more fairness) allows all concerns of the voting minority to be summarily dismissed. The remedies for this are seen in the ‘re-election’ provisions — calling for efforts to develop better ‘accountability’ tools (as discussed above).

   * The ‘making a difference’ syndrome:

Contributing to the uniqueness of WP’s, this aspect can be seen as not adequately served by the rules of the PP. It must of course be balanced against the necessity for agreed-upon procedures that can be fairly and equitably applied to all similar public projects. Such common rules include the principle of separating the ‘projects’ of generating and reaching agreement on general project rules from the specific planning projects to which those rules apply. Specific ‘unique’ aspects of individual projects may require exceptions or modifications of the general rules. (To prevent conflicts that could derail constructive planning projects, the general rules must and can contain provisions for such possibilities). Individual participants’ desire to ‘make a difference’ will mainly be constrained by such rules in the main decision-making phases of the PP, but arguably can find opportunities for creative application in the preparatory and support activities.

Summary observations:

This tentative discussion suggests that while the Parliamentary Process as practiced may fall short of adequate provisions to avoid pitfalls related to some WP properties, but that needed improvements are quite possible. A common denominator is that such improvement provisions will be situated in preparatory activities such as developing the specifics of plans and other support functions, before the final plans are presented for approval in the main decision-making phase. This may remain a problem, because any such supplementary functions may or may not be called upon, at the discretion of the ‘official’ members of the main decision-making assembly. 

Another potential problem of the parliamentary process — common to many other ‘approaches’ — is that the final decision-making tools such as majority voting have the potential of marginalizing or entirely ignoring many of the contributions and insights achieved in supporting and preparatory activities, and even overriding key concerns of minorities, in the main decision body. This feature of common planning and policy-making is not addressed in the WP ‘properties’: Should this issue be included in that set, or be seen as a separate but ubiquitous wicked problem that affects many or all other WP’s? 

The Parliamentary Process, in its many forms, currently is a main governance planning tool, up to the highest international institutions. Can it be expected to be easily and smoothly replaced by a ‘better’ system any time soon? The main competitive ‘approach’ currently being authoritarian rule, which arguably offers few assurances for meeting the PP promises of ‘listening to all concerns and give them all due consideration’ in making decisions, much less guarantees for attending to WP pitfalls. (But it may deserve a chance to present its case, not just to violently take over?) 

Barring convincing demonstration that a better approach will emerge, is the best hope we have that meaningful improvement provisions such as those related to the concerns expressed in the WP (and others!) can be integrated into the PP structure? A wide, structured, and thorough discussion of other competing ideas is urgently needed, and it should include the response of each approach to the Wicked Problem features. 

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