Rethinking wicked problems as political problems and

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Policy & Politics • vol 46 • no 1 • 165–80 • © Policy Press 2018 • #PPjnl @policy_politics Print ISSN 0305 5736 • Online ISSN 1470 8442 • https://doi.org/10.1332/030557317X15072085902640 Accepted for publication 31 August 2017 • First published online 09 October 2017

research provocations Rethinking wicked problems as political problems and policy problems

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Allan McConnell, [email protected] University of Sydney, Australia

Study of the ‘politics’ of wicked problems has tended to be ad hoc, scattered across multiple disciplines. This article seeks to address this gap in our understanding. As well as the traditional policy challenges of wicked issues, elites also have to consider the impact on political reputations, control of agendas and the promotion of particular ideological/governance trajectories. In this context, and focusing on wicked issues as presenting both political and policy problems for policy elites, this article examines different responses to these multiple risks, as well as different approaches to thinking about societal capacities to address seemingly intractable ‘wicked’ issues. key words crisis management • wicked issues • political reputation • political risk • political strategy To cite this article: McConnell, A. (2018) Rethinking wicked problems as political problems and policy problems, Policy & Politics, vol 46, no 1, 165–80, DOI: 10.1332/030557317X15072085902640

Introduction The terminology of ‘wicked problems’ is now firmly entrenched in the language of policy researchers and policy practitioners (Rittel and Webber, 1973; Roberts, 2000; APSC, 2007; Head, 2010). Indeed, the term is used across disciplines such as education, law, business and medicine to help understand problems that seem relentless and unassailable (see for example, Camillus, 2008; Wegner, 2009; Fleck, 2012). Despite many definitions and disputes around the finer detail of what constitutes ‘wickedness’, general narratives surrounding wicked problems tend towards the assumption that they are highly complex; information about the likely impact of any interventions is limited; and there is a distinct lack of agreement on their causes and the best ways of addressing these seemingly chronic and intractable problems. Examples often cited include poverty (Spicker, 2016), homelessness (Klodawsky, 2009), child protection (Gillingham and Humphreys, 2010), climate change (Lazarus, 2009), people smuggling (Gallagher, 2015), urban congestion (Greyling et al, 2016), illicit drug use (Seddon, 2016) and gender economic inequality (Turnbull, 2010). Crucially, despite considerable attention being given to understanding and addressing wicked problems, they persist. There have been pockets of success, and 165

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some symptoms have been ameliorated amid ongoing dynamic challenges over the years, but it is difficult to deny the persistence of problems such as gender inequality, poverty and drug abuse. It seems at times that ‘we can appear to be locked in an endless spiral from which there is no escape’ (Brown et al, 2010, 3). According to Rittel and Webber (1973, 168), searches for ‘solutions’ are at the heart of politics, but conflict between multiple publics is a major barrier to the type of unitary planning that is needed to address wicked problems. Yet if ‘politics’ is part of the explanation for policy responses failing to some degree in addressing wicked problems, there is far more to politics than simply conflicts between different views. Politics also involves matters such as protecting political reputation, controlling agendas and carving out particular ideological trajectories. Yet, as we will see, the study of ‘politics’ as a shaper of responses to wicked problems has tended to be cross-disciplinary, ad-hoc and fragmented – often giving way (understandably) to specific areas of interest in relation to wicked problems. To date there has been no explicit attempt to explore the role of politics in relation to wicked problems. The research question driving this article, therefore, is: in the context of liberal democracies, how do we identify and explain the role of ‘politics’ in shaping government responses to wicked policy problems? It is important to note that in focusing on the role of ‘politics’, a contrast is provided with approaches that have focused on the ‘policy’ aspects of wicked problems. The boundaries between them can be blurred (as will be discussed later on) but for the purposes of sharpening the analysis, a ‘policy’ approach to understanding and addressing wicked problems incorporates everything from seeking greater clarity and evidence around wicked problems and possible interventions, to examining actors, institutions and networks in the policy space, including possibilities for greater collaboration, working across departmental silos and other such initiatives. By contrast, a ‘political’ approach, as defined and argued here, is focused very much on issues of reputation and political capital, the politics of managed crowded policy agendas, and the promotion of ideological visions. In addressing the aforementioned question, the added value of this article can be put in the context of Ostrom (2007) who suggests that foundations of understanding may rest on (i) frameworks with a metatheoretical language that allows theories to be compared (ii) theories that enable us to diagnose and explain a particular phenomenon and (iii) models that make precise assumptions about how a limited set of variables will interact within certain parameters. This paper, therefore, seeks to make a theoretical contribution by providing what Ostrom (2007, 25) describes as ‘general working assumptions’ about responses to wicked problems. At the core of the analysis is the argument that we should conceive of wicked problems as two sets of inter-related problems: political problems and policy problems. Once we do so, it is possible to conceive of different elite responses to the higher risks of forcefully tackling wicked problems versus the lower risks of insulating political reputations, agendas and ideas from challenge. The article proceeds as follows. First it examines key elements of the policy literature to date and its approach(es) to understanding and addressing wicked problems. Second, and in the spirit of a ‘research provocation’ article aimed at enhancing our understanding and stimulating further debate, it develops the argument that wicked issues present two interrelated sets of problems for governments: political problems and policy problems. In doing so it adopts a novel approach by drawing on the literature on political success and failure (for example, Bovens and ’t Hart, 1996; 166

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2016; Brändström and Kuipers, 2003; Dunlop, 2017a; 2017b; Howlett et al, 2015; Marsh and McConnell, 2010; McConnell, 2010a; 2010b; 2017; Peters, 2015) in order to identify a range of possible political problems faced by government when confronted with wicked policy problems. It then integrates these problems with literature on risk taking and how policy making involves balancing and trading-off numerous imperatives (especially Althaus, 2008). Third, it identifies three broad strategic approaches that can be taken by political elites, from the radical overhaul of governance arrangements and policies to address wicked problems and their deeper causes, to more tokenistic measures that focus on mitigating adverse symptoms but which have political value in cultivating the perception that government is ‘doing something’. Finally, it considers the implications of this argument, particularly in terms of whether or not we should find hope in societal capacities to address wicked policy problems.

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The study of wicked problems: much done, more to do It is well-known among policy scholars that the seminal work on wicked problems is that of Rittel and Webber (1973). An earlier version of their paper was developed in the late 1960s, at a time when social policy professionals were under attack for failing to deliver on post-war aspirations such as better education, improved welfare, more livable cities and general reductions in inequalities and social disadvantage. Despite the systems thinking that had emerged out of the RAND Corporation (Mitch, 1960), developed in many respects from Lasswell (1956) and his attempts to encourage a concerted harnessing of policy processes for the greater good, it seemed to Rittel and Webber (1973) that some policy problems were not amenable to being put into clearly defined boxes labelled ‘the problem’, ‘desired outcome’ and ‘optimal solution’. Taking care not to attribute a meaning of ethical deplorability, they coined the term ‘wicked problems’ (as opposed to those which are ‘tame’) and identified at least ten characteristics of such problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973). 1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem, that is, no definitive understanding of the problem and the solution, based on all relevant evidence and questioning. 2. There is no stopping rule, that is, there is no end point where the solution is found and the problem comes to an end (as in a chess game). 3. Solutions to wicked problems are good-or-bad rather that true-or-false, that is, there are different value judgements and no party has the power to determine correctness. 4. There is no immediate and ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem, that is, the full consequences of an attempt at a solution cannot be known. 5. Every potential solution is a ‘one shot’ operation, that is, because it leaves traces that cannot be undone. 6. Wicked problems to do not have innumerable or exhaustive potential solutions, that is, there are no criteria allowing us to prove that no more solutions are possible. 7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique, that is, there are no classes of problems without variation in distinguishing properties. 8. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem, that is, there is no definitive level at which a problem is settled. 167

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9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways, that is, rich modes of reasoning compared to those in scientific discourse, means that every associated phenomena can have multiple explanations. 10. The planner has no right to be wrong, that is, policy planners can be held to account and blamed for the consequences of their reasoning. It seems useful to suggest that academic discussions ever since have exhibited (at least) two main trends. The first involves attempting to locate wicked problems within a broader understanding of different types of policy problems and the degree to which solutions are possible. While the original ten conditions by Rittel and Webber (1973) were very close to encapsulating all policy problems (because of the assumption that the process of policy analysis does not accord with scientific reasoning and falsifiability), the literature on wicked problems has – to put it crudely – focused on differentiating between ‘exceptionally tough’ problems and various others which are much less so. Such finer-grained analyses have played out through arguments that problems are not simply tame or wicked (Heifetz, 1994; Head and Alford, 2015), there are degrees of wickedness (Koppenjan and Klijn, 2004; Roberts, 2000; Head and Alford, 2015), and indeed there are super-wicked problems (Lazarus, 2009) where time is running out (arguably climate change). The second and by no means separate trend has focused on how we can better address wicked problems. Much of the focus has been broadly in the areas of governance, communication and coordination. Suggestions include developing strategies for collaboration (Roberts, 2000); better knowledge consultation and use of third parties (Head, 2008); improved knowledge transmission and integration within networks (Webber and Khademian, 2008); finding iterative and adaptive ways of continually reassessing and renegotiating rather than attempting to ‘solve’ (Head, 2014); and governance strategies based on new ways of observing and enabling (Termeer et al, 2015). A feature of these and numerous other studies is that ‘politics’ tends to appear on an ad hoc basis, usually within studies that have specific concerns and approaches. For example, some focus on the institutions and processes of government. Hoppe (2011) addresses the potential and pitfalls of participative–deliberative democracy in addressing unstructured policy problems with high levels of disagreement, focusing particularly on the capacity and realism of vested interests in the established political order to resist challenges to their ideologies and vision. Head and Alford (2015) focus essentially on public administration/management and opportunities and the ways in which addressing wicked problems – with high levels of uncertainty, diversity and disagreement – is a challenge to quasi-rationalistic ways of working. Ferlie et al (2011) focus on the capacity and potential of policy networks to address wicked problems. Other writings address power of political elites and the challenges of decision making, including the management of multiple expectations (Hartmann, 2012), and the influence of political ideology (Durant and Legge, 2006). Amid these and others, there are numerous broad critiques of government and its failures to address wicked problems, arguing that it ‘isn’t doing enough’, is ‘lacking leadership’, has the ‘wrong priorities’, and so on (Hoppe, 2011; Wagner and Gilman, 2012; Jones, 2015). One should not criticise authors simply because they have their own interests and approaches. Regardless, a by-product of differing and often cross-disciplinary interests, has been the absence of any attempts to join together the various parts and 168

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offer – at least for ‘provocative’ purposes – a framework which seeks to explain the key political dynamics of responses to wicked policy problems.

The challenge of wicked issues: political problems and policy problems

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The literature on policy success and failure (Bovens and ’t Hart, 1996; 2016; Brändström and Kuipers, 2003; Dunlop, 2017a; 2017b; Howlett et al, 2015; Marsh and McConnell, 2010; McConnell, 2010a; 2010b; 2017; Nair and Howlett, 2017; Peters, 2015; Stone, 2017) helps provide a route into thinking holistically about political and policy problems faced by governments, and the goals to which they may aspire in order to address these problems. The analysis here provides a crucial realpolitik context to wicked problems. They are actually two sets of complex and interrelated problems, that is, political problems and policy problems. Such matters are addressed in more detail below. Brief examples are provided for illustrative purposes.

Wicked issues as political problems Few scholars of public policy would take serious issue with Dye (2012, 12) in his definition of public policy as ‘whatever governments choose to do or not to do’. We should take such a broad consensus seriously, because inter alia governments ‘do’ politics. Logically, therefore, if we want to understand government responses to wicked problems then we need to understand the political problems and challenges that governments face. The following identifies three key political problems. They are derived directly from the policy success literature (see particularly Marsh and McConnell, 2010; McConnell, 2010a; 2010b; 2017) because it neatly encapsulates important ways in which governments seek to succeed, doing so in some respects by seeking to steer clear of problems that pose political risks. One political problem for government in responding to a wicked problem is how to avoid damaging its reputation and standing in opinion polls. The manner and ways in which government addresses wicked problems has the potential to affect government’s political capital. A policy intervention, may, for example, help symbolise compassion, demonstrate that government is in command of issues, and cultivate the impression that government ‘got it right’ in terms of policy response (Edelman, 1967; ’t Hart, 1993; Cohen, 1999). By contrast, if a government ‘gets it wrong’, it may be accused of lacking compassion and failing to demonstrate command of the issues. From government’s perspective, the response to a wicked policy problem would ideally boost government reputation, its electability, and the careers of the relevant ministers/officials. For example, centre-right and right-wing governments often capitalise on the issue of immigration in order to garner populist appeal. Of course, this is an ‘ideal’ (from government’s perspective rather than normatively ideal) and if politics is ‘the art of the possible’, then a quite acceptable outcome from government’s perspective is that its response to a wicked problem would at least do no damage to its reputation and standing in opinion polls. A further political problem for government in responding to a wicked problem, is how to avoid its response backfiring and continually draining agenda time. How a government addresses wicked problems has the potential to affect its ability to prioritise and control the business of governing (Hogwood, 1987; Jones and Baumgartner, 169

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2005; Martin, 2007). An idealised response to a wicked problem from government’s perspective, would allow government to retain control of its policy and political agendas, without the issue continually rebounding and consuming large amounts of time and energy. Again, such an ideal agenda outcome from government’s perspective is often unattainable, and so an acceptable outcome is for its response and the ensuing outcomes and debates to reappear on agendas – but in sustainable and manageable ways. The introduction in 2003 of a congestion charge in central London was potentially a recipe for the agenda of Mayor Ken Livingstone to be consumed by relentless criticism, yet such criticisms (especially from some retailers) proved to be quite containable (Richards, 2006). A third political problem for government is how to avoid its response compromising the broader ideological/governance trajectory that it seeks to forge. How a government addresses wicked problems has the potential to reinforce and/or detract from government’s broader ideological/governance trajectory (Baumgartner and Jones, 2009; Howlett, 2009; Cairney, 2012). From government’s perspective, its response to a wicked problem would ideally allow government to promote its broader governance agenda or ideology. Cuts in welfare benefits to ‘get people into work’, for example, could in principle reinforce a broad neoliberal agenda. Again, however, wicked problems do not always present such opportunities or come without taking risks. US President Obama’s healthcare reforms are arguably one such example. The opinion poll divide during his term in office between a dominant opposition and lesser support remained relatively stable. Ultimately, however, ‘Obamacare’, helped enable the President promote the flagship values of social justice – regardless of whether we support or oppose the reforms. Politics, therefore, is a significant concern of policy makers seeking to address wicked problems. It is not publicly astute for political elites to admit this fact because there is a risk of being portrayed as putting private/party interest above public interest, but it is a reality nevertheless. As will be argued in more detail later, politics shapes responses to wicked problems, just as much as the wicked policy issues themselves.

Wicked issues as policy problems Political challenges aside, governments also face problems in terms of actually addressing the particular wicked issue at hand, whether it be gender inequality in the workplace, child poverty, obesity, urban sustainability or gun crime. The very wickedness of some issues means, as Head (2008, 102) argues, that they are ‘inherently resistant to a clear statement of the problem and resistant to a clear and agreed solution. Science cannot resolve these dilemmas by filling the gaps in empirical knowledge’. In principle, all governments would be highly desirous, for example, of being able to end drug abuse, child poverty and domestic violence. Yet as the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC, 2007) argues, ‘there is no quick fix for wicked problems, no glib formula’. The policy problem for government, therefore, is how to address and ‘do something’ about a wicked policy problem when there are no ready-made, agreed and predictable solutions. When added to the political problem of how to protect its reputation, maintain control of the policy agenda and forge ahead with its ideological/governing trajectory, there are difficult decisions to make. It is in this context that consideration needs to be given to risks and trade-offs.

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Risks and trade-offs When governments have multiple goals, seeking to maximise each goal can be a difficult if not impossible task (Hogwood and Gunn, 1984; Bardach, 2009). The impact of pursuing one goal can spill over and often clash with the pursuit of another. In reality, policy making involves juggling multiple goals and assessing the risk of pursuing a particular course of action (or at times, inaction). It would be easy for governments to print money and give to the poor in order to address the problem of poverty, but doing so would produce the strong risk of inflationary pressures and devalue the resources (money) distributed to those in need. Such a move might also backfire politically, with some considering that the initiative constitutes preferential and undeserving treatment. Or, governments could introduce extraordinary and draconian penalties for illicit drug use, but doing so may create risks that the measures will not work, one reason being that there would be insufficient capacities in both the police and criminal justice systems to ensure compliance and impose appropriate penalties. Politically, such a move would also be likely to come under fire from human rights advocates. Assessing risks may be formal and tabulated in policy briefs and ministerial guidance, but we should not think of policy makers as ultra-rational actors, even although there are difficult and competing problems to weigh up. Assessing risks can also be informal and instinctive. As Althaus (2008, 65) argues in a major work on the subject: ‘individual political actors unconsciously assess the political risk of an issue by weighing policy content against community acceptance, using the perspective of a politician who must routinely face electoral scrutiny’. Managing wicked problems in the aggregate, involves thinking about potential synergies, risks and trade-offs between political and policy goals. There are potential trades-offs between the risks of forcefully tackling the wicked policy problem, and the risks of not attending principally to political goals. For example, a government seeking to address centuries of indigenous/native people’s health disadvantage will confront not only the various risks and trade-offs involved in addressing the policy problem (complex as it is) but also the risks and trade-offs involved in addressing the political problems of placing centre stage, issues of racism and arguments about ‘special treatment’ being given to marginalised individuals or groups. In weighing-up problems and issues, governments have some strategic autonomy to decide (in line with the powers of political executives) on a particular course of action. However, such choices do not take place in a vacuum. Howlett (2009) illustrates how aspects of policy making are connected and nested within the regime in which they operate (see also Stewart (2009) on public sector values). At the ‘highest’ level there are governance modes (Level 1), abstract policy aims such as market governance and corporatist governance. Nested within these boundaries is a policy regime logic (Level 2), where there are preferences for particular types of policy objectives and policy mechanisms, such as market mechanisms, or planned solutions involving state and non-state actors. Nested further within the policy regime are policy instruments, with their targets and policy design being products of these ‘trickle down’ higher frameworks (Level 3). One implication is that effective policy formation and decisions requires alignment between all three – otherwise it is extremely difficult to tackle issues if particular policy interventions are at odds with the ideology and policy logic of a particular regime. Put crudely, for example, we would expect government 171

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commitments to protectionism to be manifested in specific policy instruments (such as trade tariffs or embargos) in response to wicked policy problems, or government commitment to neoliberalism to be reflected in market-based responses to specific wicked policy problems. Political challenges lie ahead for any government tackling a wicked issue, but doing so with a policy that jars with the core values and policy logic it has been preaching.

Three different approaches to the challenges of wicked political and policy problems

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Taking the previous point further, let us consider three broad types of responses to wicked problems. These forms of responses are neither definitive nor exhaustive, but they do give a sense of different forms of government commitment and preparedness to take varying degrees of political risks (or not) in the face of wicked policy problems.

High risk: political and governance radicalism If a government seeks to address a wicked policy problem by tackling the complex, deeper causes of wicked problems as well as their symptoms, a very strong strategic approach is needed. Strong, high profile leadership is needed to steer and realign governance arrangements (for example, networks, hierarchy, markets) to ensure unimpeachable alignment with measures to address the wicked policy problem. Similar leadership strength is needed to marshal all key aspects of policy formation processes (such as evidence, procedures, deliberative mechanisms, inputs from stakeholders) towards producing an authoritative and sustainable policy decision or decisions to address the wicked problem. Furthermore, policy goals to address the wicked problem need to be clear and unambiguous. Also, the means of achieving them via a combination of policy instruments should be ring-fenced from goals/ means of other policies that potentially may distract from or drain the capacity to deliver. For instance, a legislative initiative enabling local authorities to provide X number of ‘safe houses’ for women subject to domestic violence, should be protected from broader budget cuts that might make implementation impossible. In addition, all aspects of policy design, including the configuration of policy instruments used and the identification of target groups, should be based on clear, robust and widely persuasive framing and logic. Yet such a vanguard approach brings major risks. Realigning governance systems and surrounding ideologies carries the risk that they will make little difference to established institutional pathways or policy sub-systems which continue in path dependent ways (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Pierson, 2000), as May, Sapotichne and Workman (2009) found in their study of the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security. Also, strong, forceful steering of policy-making processes towards a high priority commitment such as ‘to win the war on poverty’ has the potential to backfire (McConnell, 2010a). The risks are of marginalising counterarguments/evidence that the proposals will not work and of alienating those with differing views on a typically wicked issue – leading potentially to policy coalitions that are at risk of fracturing in the implementation process. Similarly, commitment to a detailed package of extensive and deep-rooted policy reforms, brings the risk that in practice they simply will not be effective in ‘solving’ chronic, complex policy 172

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Rethinking wicked problems as political problems and policy problems

problems where there are high levels of uncertainty and substantial disagreement on the best way forward (Patashnik, 2008). There is also the risk of lack of clarity and/or ambiguity in goals – particularly if such cloudiness was previously a strategic necessity to build a coalition of diverse interests at the policy formation stage (Stone, 2012). A further risk is that despite the rhetoric of ‘ring-fencing’, the resource demands (such as budgetary resources; agenda time) of other policy sectors/problems/crises may undermine attempts to address the wicked problem. This is not to suggest that political risk taking is always absent, as evidenced in different ways, for example, by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on national debt and President Obama on healthcare. In terms of the latter, some leaders on certain issues are ‘constraint challengers’ (Keller, 2005) who do not let complexity and controversy act as barriers to action. A series of complex administrative and fiscal contingencies may also align by chance, helping enable political commitments to be put into practice (d’Abbs, 2004). Nevertheless, all things being equal, giving clear priority to addressing wicked problems (symptoms and deeper causes) is a perilous approach – particularly in exposing political goals (reputation, agendas, ideological/ governance trajectory) to a high risk of challenge and destabilisation.

Medium/modest risk: a semi-cautious balancing act As already indicated, public policy making involves assessing risks, prioritising and trade-offs, often leading to the sacrificing or relegating of some goals in order to meet others (Althaus, 2008). A response to wicked problems may involve an attempt to navigate both the policy and political challenges, looking for synergies and accepting modest levels of policy reform (that may be insufficient to address deep causal factors at the governance/institutional levels) and modest levels of political vulnerability (to reputations, agendas and ideological/governance trajectories). UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s commitment to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ (Mathews and Young, 2003, vii) may have produced mixed results, but it was certainly an attempt to straddle deeper causal factors such as youth social exclusion and lack of social responsibility, as well as ameliorating the symptoms of crime, such as the impact on victims. Another mid-way forward is developing collaborative understandings of the problem and negotiating a solution (Schön and Rein, 1994; Roberts, 2000; Head and Alford, 2015; Termeer et al, 2015). Such initiatives are unlikely to lead to attempts to promote deep ideological rethinking, or a major realignment of governing priorities, but neither are they simply tokenistic moves designed largely to protect political priorities and remove the issue from the policy agenda. Depending on one’s views, reforms that accept medium/modest levels political risk, may be viewed as the best or worst of both worlds. Regardless, they are a common response pattern for governments that know and often need to do something to tackle a wicked problem, but are not prepared to unnecessarily sacrifice their reputation and political goals in doing so.

Low risk taking: placebos, tokenism and addressing symptoms A further strategic approach is for government to, in effect, quarantine its political goals from any significant risk. In reality, therefore, it means keeping a comparatively lower profile, working within the established governance arrangements, policy agendas 173

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and governing/ideological trajectories. Steering a new course would only be viable if there is a very strong likelihood of political enhancement, for example, a boost in electoral fortunes or revitalised governance/ideological trajectory. For example, a report by Fleming (2008) on alcohol (mis)use and anti-social behaviour in the state of New South Wales (Australia) indicated that an important driver of government/ opposition responses to this wicked problem was short-term and rapid ‘quick fix’ interventions to demonstrate political leadership. Policy formation is also much more cautious in this low risk approach. There is a lower leadership profile, more routine strategic leadership of policy formation process, often with a pragmatic commitment to ‘listen’ to a range of views and stakeholders. Typically, a key political value of such processes is helping manage citizen/stakeholder perceptions that government is in the process of ‘doing something’ about the wicked policy problem. Focusing on policy objectives and the means of achieving them are also more achievable, by for example, addressing symptoms of a wicked problem rather than deep rooted, complex and uncertain causes. The political value of more ‘realistic’ policies is that they can convey the impression of government being concerned and competent; allowing it to retain control of the policy agenda, and prevent a backlash which might otherwise disrupt its governing/ideological trajectory. The risks with such an approach, are of course that government faces political pressures and accusations that it is ‘not doing enough’, but there is always the defence that such issues are exceptionally difficult to address anyway. Furthermore, such critique can generally be easily absorbed by governments who on a daily basis, face criticism across a multitude of issues. They may have less capacity to address wicked problems but correspondingly, they have greater capacity to protect and quarantine political goals. Schattschneider (1960), Bachrach and Baratz (1970) and Edelman (1977) recognised several decades ago, that a crucial feature of governments managing complex policy problems (and indeed injustices and inequalities) is their capacity to filter out critique through mobilising existing systemic biases, and managing citizen views of the problem and perceptions that government is tackling them. Government does have capacity to filter out potential criticism, simply by virtue of the fact that it introduces measures to address policy problems on the ground. The political problems faced by policymakers are largely hidden from the public gaze, and government has de facto the (quasi) constitutional autonomy to take ‘ownership’ of the political problem and reflect/act strategically on how to proceed with policy interventions/ non-interventions. For example, governments have greater capacity to think and act on: (a) how to manage the relationship between public perceptions of crime and the impact of these on government competence, agendas and ideas, compared to (b) actually being able to address the multiple, complex and deep-rooted causes of crime. Tokenistic, placebo-type, feel-good policies and ‘busy work’ (Gustafson, 1983; Gurran and Phibbs, 2015) can be a much safer approach in political terms, and simpler to put into practice – precisely because wicked policy problems are indeed wicked. All things being equal, the potential backlash for not forcefully addressing wicked policy problems is easier to accommodate than high risk ‘flagship’ initiatives with high stakes (if the reforms don’t succeed) for political reputations, maintaining control of policy agendas and promoting governance trajectories.

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Conclusion: pessimism, optimism or pragmatism? ‘Politics’ has been given explicit attention here, focusing on responses to wicked issues as presenting policy makers with both political and policy problems. One might ponder whether doing so is something to bemoan or applaud. For the purposes of generating debate, three approaches can be identified (following Bovens and ’t Hart, 1996). The boundaries between them can be blurred but nevertheless they reflect different strands of political discourse. A pessimistic view is that there is little we can do about wicked problems in the absence of deeper structural changes in society. In a world dominated by entrenched institutions, political coalitions and policy pathways that are difficult to budge, the forces of inertia will always triumph over aspirations to tackle wicked problems. Indeed, the forces of inertia may even filter out any such aspirations (as per the ‘mobilization of bias’ (Bachrach and Baratz, 1970) and we are left at worst with placebo or tokenistic policies, and at best with policies that do little more than alleviate some of the symptoms of the problem. Unless there are some revolutionary reforms (for example in our core values or in breaking down powerful coalitions) we are destined to do little in tackling wicked policy problems such as poverty and drug abuse. A pessimistic view from the ‘left’ might argue that poverty is an inevitable product of capitalist dynamics and is insuperable unless we have a revolution in the means of production and exchange. A pessimistic view from the ‘right’ might argue that poverty is an inevitable product of a ‘nanny state’ that impedes individual initiative, and that the problem of poverty is insurmountable unless we have unregulated free markets with the role of the state limited to little more than the protection of private property rights. Rittel and Webber (1973) themselves seem to adopt a form of reluctant pessimism. It is clear from their seminal argument that there is a wish that somehow things were different, but that searching for rational solutions to certain types of problems is virtually impossible. Indeed, they argue that ‘planning’ (similar to the more used term of ‘policy analysis’) is intertwined with politics and political pluralism, and that ‘we have neither a theory that can locate societal goodness, nor one that might dispel wickedness’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973, 169). An optimistic view is that strong, visionary leaders who are ‘constraint challengers’ (Keller, 2005) can make a difference (witness the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his supporters). ‘Agents’ can triumph over ‘structure’. They can act as ‘policy entrepreneurs’ to champion structural change, articulate bold visions, build new coalitions and not settle for second best or the easy political option. Even if plans go awry (such as Bill Clinton’s healthcare reforms) we can reassemble and try again. Optimism is particularly the discourse of election platforms, but also the language of lobby groups who seek traction for their ideas and policy proposals from visionary leaders. A pragmatic view offers some hope without being overly optimistic. Progress can made through piecemeal reforms over the years (Lindblom, 1977; Rose, 2005), even if at times the reforms don’t quite live up to expectations. Powerful coalitions of policy monopolies can break down (Baumgartner and Jones, 2009), institutions can transform (Mahoney and Thelen, 2010), policy networks can be enabling (Ferlie et al, 2011) and we simply need more research and better understanding of the circumstances that enable such dynamics to emerge. Crises and disasters can certainly be one such catalyst for reform, as evident in the post-Fukushima overturning of Japan’s reliance 175

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on nuclear energy. Crisis episodes notwithstanding, a pragmatic approach is grounded in the argument that we need better knowledge, better consultation, better use of third parties (Head, 2008), collaborative leadership (Head and Alford, 2015), better steering strategies involving legitimate correction, incentives and enticements, appeals to community values (Head, 2010), or astute framing of the cognitive, communicative, organisational and political challenges (Head, 2014). Wherever we stand on the spectrum, it is clear that case-study research is needed to ground our analysis, as well as prising open and shining a light on many of the political issues outlined here. Comparative case studies would be particularly useful. We need to explore why some broadly similar wicked problems in different jurisdictions, lead to different responses. Whether the issue is poverty or homelessness, why are some governments relatively more prepared to take political risks that attempt to dig deeper into causal factors? Is the deciding factor one of strong leadership, or crisis-type circumstances? We also need to explore why different types of wicked problems in different sectors and in different jurisdictions, lead to very similar responses. Whether the issues are (for example) gender inequality, obesity or alcohol abuse, why are governments often unprepared to take major political risks? Is this convergence due to electoral considerations, or simply the knowledge that they do not wish attention to be drawn way from key reforms in other fields? Whatever the ‘answer’, there is much still to explore in terms of the politics of wicked problems and the legacy of Rittel and Webber (1973), particularly once we conceive of them explicitly as presenting both policy problems and political problems. References Althaus, C. (2008) Calculating political risk, Sydney: University of New South Wales Press. APSC (Australian Public Service Commission) (2007) Tackling wicked problems:A public policy perspective, Canberra Australian Public Service Commission, www.apsc.gov.au/ publications-and-media/archive/publications-archive/tackling-wicked-problems Bachrach, P. and Baratz, M.S. (1970) Power and poverty:Theory and practice, New York: Oxford University Press. Bardach, E. (2009) A practical guide for policy analysis: The eightfold path to more effective problem solving, 3rd edn, Washington, DC: CQ Press. Baumgartner, F.R. and Jones, B.D. (2009) Agendas and instability in American politics, 2nd edn, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press. Bovens, M. and ’t Hart, P. (1996) Understanding policy fiascoes, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Bovens, M. and ’t Hart, P. (2016) Revisiting the study of policy failures, Journal of European Public Policy, vol 23, no 5, pp 653–66. Brändström, A. and Kuipers, S. (2003) From ‘normal incidents’ to political crises: Understanding the selective politicization of policy failures, Government and Opposition, vol 38, no 3, pp 279–305. Brown, V.A., Deane, P.M., Harris, J.A. and Russell, J.Y. (2010) Introduction, in V.A. Brown, J.A. Harris and J.Y. Russell (eds), Wicked problems:Through the transdisciplinary imagination, Abingdon: Earthscan, pp 3–15. Cairney, P. (2012) Understanding public policy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Camillus, J.C. (2008) Strategy as a wicked problem, Harvard Business Review, May, pp 1–9. 176

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