WICKED PROBLEMS IN ECONOMIC POLICY

While the study of wicked problems is not new, there is a need to develop a broader understanding of its scope in policies under the paradigm of complexity. The origin of the term “wicked Problem” goes back to Rittel and Webber’s (1973) questioning of the validity of technical-scientific approaches in social policy and urban planning. In the face of complexity and uncertainty, these problems require iterative approaches, with the consideration of multiple causes and stakeholders.

More than four decades later, however, there are strong arguments for the development of new topics generated, such as problem framing, policy design, policy capacity and the contexts of policy implementation. According to the OECD, wicked problems are dynamic and persistent in nature. They feature multiple interactions with other social issues and involving many actors. For example, climate change, migration, poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and development are all wicked problems.

According to the report Tackling Wicked Problems (Australian Public Service Commission, 2007), policy makers should consider:


• The relationship between the totality and the parts;
• The role of institutions;
• The commitment of multiple stakeholders and citizens in identifying solutions;
• The need to develop new skills and behavioural changes;
• Tolerance towards uncertainty.

Considering this perspective, new methodologies have been introduced to :

  1. Frame policies in order to select, organise, interpret a complex reality with the objective of offering guidelines for governmental action.
  2. Design policies as an ‘integrated’ approach that comprises problem identification and scope, deliberation on the choice of instruments and procedures, and evaluation of implementation in the short and long term.
  3. Increase the capacity building of policymakers that includes not only analytical skills and abilities to assess current performance and future policy options, but also to undertake medium- and long-term planning with strategic goal setting. Such capacity building involves not only competencies and skills in project consulting, but also in the implementation, coordination and evaluation of ongoing programmes.
  4. Introduce collaborative governance in policies with the establishing of effective agreements between public sector spheres/ agencies and non-governmental spheres/ institutions represented by businesses, communities and research organisations.
  5. Adopt incremental and adaptive approaches as methodologies that allow not only to assess the consequences of new policies, but also to identify any emerging negative impacts on other parts of the economic system.

In fact, there is the belief that such methodologies might make possible fo policy makers to tackle the unpredictable evolving circumstances that are typical of complex systems, such as sustainable development, climate change, terrorism, international business regulation and illicit migration. For instance, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can be considered as wicked problems under the paradigm of complexity. Each problem involves multiple factors and impacts multiple policy domains, levels of governance and chains of unintended consequences.

Therefore, a wicked problem requires the consideration of its several dimensions (social, economic, psychological, ethical, cultural, scientific, political, etc.) to define a set of possible solutions. According to Edgard Morin, the transition from the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm to the complexity paradigm in scientific thinking highlights the materiality of social life. Wicked problems require the adoption of a polycentric perspective and the promotion of a learning process to make policymaking more responsive to economic and social systems as complex ones. Each solution to a complex problem causes cascading effects throughout the socio-ecological system that is overwhelmed by uncertainty and involves a continuous learning process.Moreover, wicked problems are characterised by the fallibility of solutions.

It is certainly time to both abandon the Cartesian perspective of policymaking and introduce in economics education new scientific paradigms.

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