Wicked tendencies in policy problems: Rethinking the distinction between social and technical problems

Joshua Newman, Brian W. Head

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Complex or intractable policy problems, often called ‘wicked’ problems, have been a feature of public policy research since the early 1970s. Observers have generally assumed that these wicked problems constitute a distinct category of policy problems, based on the notion that some problems – those characterised as substantially technical or scientific in nature – lend themselves to traditional linear problem-solving methods, whereas other problems that are social in nature tend to be wicked. By examining three cases where scientific knowledge is central to the debate – climate change, genetically modified foods and hydraulic fracturing – we argue that all policy problems can exhibit wicked tendencies, regardless of the amount of scientific information available to decision-makers. Therefore, the reliance on increased information in resolving wicked problems is unlikely to be sufficient or effective.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)414-429
Number of pages16
JournalPolicy and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Climate change
  • Evidencebased policy
  • Research utilisation
  • Wicked problems

Cite this