In the early 1970s, Rittel and Webber asserted that conventional approaches to scientific analysis and rational planning were inadequate for guiding practitioners and researchers who were tackling complex and contested social problems—which they termed “wicked” problems. The full implications of this challenging critique of rational policy planning were not elaborated at that time, but the underlying issues have attracted increasing attention and debate in later decades. Policy analysts, academic researchers, and planning practitioners have continued to grapple with the claim that conventional scientific-technical approaches might be insufficient and even misleading as a basis for understanding and responding to complex social issues. This is paradoxical in the modern era, which has been attracted to notions of evidence-based policymaking, policy evaluation, and performance-based public management. Scholarly discussion has continued to evolve concerning methods for addressing highly contested arenas of policy and planning. One key proposition is that citizens and key stakeholders tend to have conflicting perceptions about the nature of particular social “problems” and will thus have different views about appropriate responses or “solutions.” A related proposition is that these disputes are anchored in differing values and perceptions, which are not able to be adjudicated and settled by empirical science, but require inclusive processes of argumentation and conflict resolution among stakeholders. Hence, several kinds of knowledge—lay and expert, civic and professional—need to be brought together in order to develop transdisciplinary “usable knowledge.” As the research literature produces a richer array of comparative case analyses, it may become feasible to construct a more nuanced understanding of the conditions underlying various kinds of wicked problems in social policy and planning. In the meantime, generalized and indiscriminate use of the term wicked problems is not helpful for delineating the nature of the challenges faced and appropriate remedial actions.
We frequently employ analogies such as a leaking roof or finishing last in a ranking to illustrate that there is a serious problem requiring attention. Unfortunately, policy realities are far more complex and less obvious since policymakers do not benefit from objective measures or clear signals akin to having water dripping over their head to indicate the presence of a problem. In fact, they face a plethora of policy actors constantly engaged in defining policy problems for them based on competing frames of references. The term “policy problems” evokes questions of what makes a social issue a policy problem, but it also raises questions regarding whether problems can actually be solved via a public response and how. Policy problems occupy a crucial role in policy studies, if not for the simple reason that political authorities are unlikely to alter or create policies without the presence of problems. As such, policy problems occupy an important place in popular theoretical frameworks frequently employed in the field of public policy. The formulation of policy problems is at the heart of the punctuated-equilibrium theory since these can result in the creation of new political coalitions seeking transformative policy change. In the social construction of target populations approach, the ways in which the public perceives particular subgroups or subpopulations dictate our understanding of policy problems and the types of instruments to deploy. Frameworks for policy feedback assume that current policies structure the formulation of policy problems along the lines of altering existing policies. In the multiple-streams theoretical framework, policy problems are part of a toolkit used to validate the use of already made solutions by policy entrepreneurs seeking the right opportunity for implementation. A thorough treatment and analysis of policy problems exist within the policy design literature. Scholars operating within this tradition have emphasized the individual characteristics of policy problems and, as importantly, how these matter when it is time to enact solutions. Characteristics of problems, such as causality and severity, are key elements in the identification and formulation of policy problems and their likelihood to feature prominently in the policy agenda of governmental actors. Additional elements, such as the divisibility of policy problems and the extent to which these problems can be monetarized, matter in assessing the possibility of enacting solutions. This raises the fundamental question of whether policy problems can actually be resolved. Mature policies are the norm in industrialized countries, and these are increasingly subject to international agreements. Consequently, there are, for example, many more interdependencies, which have led to the reemergence of wicked-problems analyses. However, a substantial number of contributions have associated complexity with wicked problems, raising questions surrounding their intrinsic qualities and the danger of conceptual stretching.
According to the World Health Organization, between 2010 and 2015 there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne enteric diseases. Over 40% people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children aged under five years. Highly industrialized livestock production processes have brought along antibiotic resistances that could soon result in an era in which common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades can once again kill. Unsafe food also poses major economic risks. For example, Germany’s E. coli outbreak in 2011 reportedly caused US$1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries. Food safety policy ensures that food does not endanger human health—along the entire food chain through which food is produced, stored, transported, processed, and prepared. In an interdependent world of globalized trade and health risks, food safety is an extraordinarily complex policy issue situated at the intersection of trade, agricultural, and health policies. Although traditionally considered a domestic issue, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and other major food safety crises before and around the turn of the millennium highlighted the need for transnational regulation and coordination to ensure food safety in regional and global markets. As a result, food safety has received ample scholarly attention as a critical case of the transboundary regulation of often uncertain risks. The global architecture of food production also gives food safety policy an international and interactive character. Some countries or regions, for example, the European Union, act as standard setters, whereas newly industrialized countries, such as China, struggle to “do their homework,” and the poorest regions of the world strive for market access. Although national regulatory approaches differ considerably in the degree to which they rely on self-regulation by the market, overall, the sheer extent of the underlying policy problem makes it impossible to tackle food safety solely through public regulation. Therefore, private regulation and co-regulation play an influential role in the standard setting, implementation, and enforcement of food safety policy. The entanglement of several interrelated policy sectors, the need for coordination and action at multiple—global, regional, national, local—levels, and the involvement of actors from the public and private, for-profit and nonprofit fields, are the reasons why the governance of food safety policy is characterized by considerable hybridity and also requires both vertical and horizontal policy integration. Scholarship has increasingly scrutinized how the resulting multiple, sometimes conflicting, actor rationalities and the overlap of several regulatory roles affect effectiveness and legitimacy in the decision-making and implementation of food safety policy. By highlighting issues such as regulatory capture and deficient enforcement systems, this research suggests another implication of the hybridization of food safety governance, namely, that the latter increasingly shares the characteristics of a wicked problem. Next to complexity and both high and notoriously uncertain risks, the multiple actors involved often diverge in their very definitions of the problem and strategic intentions. The major task ahead lies in designing recipes for integrated, context-sensitive, and resilient policy responses.
Erik Baekkeskov, Olivier Rubin, Louise Munkholm, and Wesal Zaman
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global health crisis estimated to be responsible for 700,000 yearly deaths worldwide. Since the World Health Assembly adopted a Global Action Plan on AMR in 2015, national governments in more than 120 countries have developed national action plans. Notwithstanding this progress, AMR still has limited political commitment, and existing global efforts may be too slow to counter its rise. The article presents five characteristics of the global AMR health crisis that complicate the translation from global attention to effective global initiatives. AMR is (a) a transboundary crisis that suffers from collective action problems, (b) a super wicked and creeping crisis, (c) the product of trying to solve other global threats, (d) suffering from lack of advocacy, and (e) producing distributional and ethical dilemmas. Applying these five different crisis lenses, the article reviews central global initiatives, including the Global Action Plan on AMR and the recommendations of the Interagency Coordination Group on AMR. It argues that the five crisis lenses offer useful entry points for social science analyses that further nuance the existing global governance debate of AMR as a global health crisis.