A New Book on Wicked Problems by Professor Brian Head: With Flashbacks to Dave Iverson


Some of you may remember Dave Iverson talking about “wicked problems”, in his Eco Watch Dialogues? At that site, I found this link to a 1999 article by Bruce Shindler and Lori Cramer of Oregon State University. In which they say:

many forest professionals were introduced to the term wicked problems in a provocative 1986 Journal of Forestry article by Allen and Gould who borrowed the phrase from the systems analysis research of (Rittel and Webber, 1973)

And of course, that was a while back.

In my hunt, I discovered that the EcoWatch Dialogues go all the way back to 1990, still on the web. Many fascinating articles and discussion. And here’s a link to a post by Dave on the topic on TSW in 2011.

So here we are in the 2020’s and the London School of Economics “Impact of Social Sciences” blog has a post by Brian Head discussing his new book “Wicked Problems in Public Policy“.  Head is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Queenland, Australia.   TSW readers are invited to review this book, which is open access (yay!). Some quotes from his blog post:

First is the well-known critique of rationalist claims that the policy process should be substantively based on rigorous ‘evidence’. In rebuttal, critics state that stakeholder interests and experience are crucial, that public policy decisions are ultimately political, and that accountability must rest with elected governments. Underpinning this are five common claims:

  • evidence is always incomplete, especially for complex and evolving issues;
  • evidence includes many forms of knowledge, which are often inconsistent;
  • evidence is always subject to value-laden interpretations, hidden or overt;
  • evidence is inevitably “cherry-picked” by governments and stakeholders to support their preferred positions; and
  • reliance on specialized expertise implies technocratic and undemocratic styles of decision-making.

The second key reason for the malaise is the rapid rise of mass communication channels that propagate misinformation, personal beliefs, and vilification of opponents. Polarisation intensifies in-group bias and provides excuses for ignoring alternative information. Partisan polarisation undermines community confidence in procedural fairness and legitimacy, which are crucial for trust in public institutions. In the face of this tsunami of propaganda and incivility, the enlightenment model of reasoned debate in the public sphere has been deeply wounded. In responding to this wave of ‘post-truth’ anti-science, the defenders of evidence-informed debate and civic education have created new networks to discuss strategy, share information, improve their communication of evidence-informed policy ideas, and develop new tools for fact-checking or reviewing the claims of partisan advocates.

(I think the humble Smokey Wire might be one of those “new networks”).

The third key reason for concern about the future of evidence-informed policymaking is that so many policy problems are intractable, controversial and turbulent. This is the domain of ‘wicked’ problems

The third key reason for concern about the future of evidence-informed policymaking is that so many policy problems are intractable, controversial and turbulent. This is the domain of ‘wicked’ problems, as outlined in Wicked Problems in Public Policy. Wicked problems are characterised by complex interactions, gaps in reliable knowledge, and enduring differences in values, interests and perspectives. Unfortunately, ‘more science’ cannot resolve these conflicting views, and therefore more data cannot directly help to de-politicize the partisan divide. Wicked problems include long-standing, yet continually evolving problems such as: refugees and immigration, human rights and inequalities, climate change, food security, water and energy security, biodiversity protection, terrorism, and the peaceful resolution of major disputes.


Finally, it is true that there are no neat and correct answers to wicked problems. They might not be solvable in the short term. But there are ways to better understand and manage them. For example, inclusive processes for considering the nature of the problems and possible paths toward improvement are often more beneficial than ideological solutions imposed by government. Good quality knowledge and analysis are always useful, but information alone cannot transform complex problems into simple solutions. Information-based strategies are only one important thread in the policy mix required to enable us to tackle the wicked features of complex and contentious problems.


Each problem has a unique history, even though many problems closely interact with others (such as poverty, housing, health and education). Solutions are provisional and contingent. They are temporary political accommodations, depending not only on best available evidence but also on stakeholder perceptions and the capacity of leaders to negotiate shared goals.


The case for using social experimentation and co-design processes is mainly pitched at the local level, rather designing mainstream national programs. These collaborative agendas and methods are very diverse. Choices need to be ‘fit for purpose’, working with relevant stakeholders and adapting to the nuances of each challenge. Collaborative and coordinated approaches are widely recommended, but the difficulties of successfully implementing such approaches are well known and skilled leadership is needed.


What struck me about this post is the fact that science folks are rewarded (by journal articles, media, and other professional rewards) for generalizing (does my study relate to a Ranger District in the Sierra? the Sierra? California? Dry western forests? North America? Global forest change or biodiversity?  As science becomes more models than empirical, more satellite data than on the ground, related to abstractions (defined by academics generally) such as climate change or biodiversity or regenerative agriculture.. does it drift away from having utility in solving wicked problems?

Politicians often prefer a quick fix or a simple ‘solution’ for managing a complex policy problem. In many cases, government leaders will attempt to impose their own preferred solution, either to appease their own supporter base (‘keeping promises’), or to close down the debate. This is often ineffective and sometimes counter-productive. In the long run, differences in stakeholder values and interests need to be acknowledged, and methods found to accommodate diversity and equity. This is a challenge for political leadership, as much as a challenge for evidence and expertise.

In the case of our issues, it is interesting that how many of these are seen through a national lens.  And as we often discuss, certainly federal lands belong to all people, but still perhaps the national or international view is not the best way to manage the set of wicked problems therein

3 thoughts on “A New Book on Wicked Problems by Professor Brian Head: With Flashbacks to Dave Iverson”

  1. I’ll suggest that an approach that puts national sideboards on a local process (such as forest planning) seems like an attempt to address these kinds of issues (as well as using forest plans to put sideboards on project decisions). The degree to which sideboards should be imposed is really a question of the degree to which local processes will be trusted, and NFMA reflects the distrust earned by the Forest Service in prior years (which seems to have persisted).

  2. Long ago, in my callow youth, I thought that national forests demanded national-level policymaking. What part of “national” didn’t people understand, I demanded.

    Slowly, I started learning how decisions actually get made. When Tip O’Neill revitalized the truism “All politics is local” in the early 1980s, I began to understand its relevance to national forests. I saw how the Forest Service fit its line officer selections to each forest’s local politics and culture. I saw how wilderness designations are not the product of all-Congress deliberations, but of the diligence and smarts of small handfuls of activists creating place-based campaigns that resonate locally with elected officials. Even “big” policies, like the Northwest Forest Plan, are rooted in the Pacific Northwest’s politics, not those of New England or the Appalachians.

    Today I worry that a creeping and insidious insularity from the real world outside its own bureaucracy is making my favorite agency politically clumsy and stone-deaf. For all the talk about partnerships and consensus, the on-the-ground reality is that Forest Service leaders have never been so distant from local peoples as they are now. As Bob Zybach has pointed out, the Forest Service now speaks a language foreign to most outsiders. True that!

  3. I dug this out of Brian Head’s book:

    “The policy metaphor in the complexity frame changes from an image of government behind the steering wheel driving on a well-lit road, to an image of government trying to drive a car, with the windshield covered in mud, going down an unlit, winding road, with hundreds of people grabbing the wheel.” (Colander & Kupers, 2014, p. 26)

    No wonder the “politically clumsy and stone-deaf” Forest Service chose to hide in Its own bureaucratic Fantasyland of structured rational planning, instead of embracing the reality of real-world complexity and wickedness that is more akin to Adaptive Governance than Rational Planning.


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