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Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning

Introduction

Although science and engineering professions have developed numerous solutions to many problems, they do not effectively respond to the wicked issues of social or policy planning. In Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber recognize the emergence of complex societal issues, which are highly resistant to resolutions. In the article, the authors illustrate the distinctive attributes of these problems, which renders the development of ultimate solutions impossible. These challenges are unique, interconnected, and precisely undefinable, lack clear indications of whether they have been addressed, and the proposed solutions cannot be independently or objectively evaluated for their effectiveness. This implies that any recommended strategy can only be assessed as good or bad rather than the scientific and dichotomous classifications of true or false. Within the context of the criminal justice system, such challenges include mass incarceration, war on drugs, and gun control, which are defined by the presence of multiple potential solutions and associated refutations. Although there are no clear-cut solutions, integrating an ethical objective that seeks to benefit the most people can help address these problems.

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The Challenge of Wicked Problems

Over the years, social and public policies based on science have not adequately responded to the complex challenges defined by their high resistance to solutions. Rittel and Webber (1973) refer to these issues as wicked problems, which are distinctly difficult or impossible to solve due to such characteristics as indefinability, interdependencies, uniqueness, and the absence of clear solutions. Additionally, these challenges are multicausal, symptomatic of another problem, and the proposed solutions have no criteria or metric for determining when to stop. Consequently, they demand more complex thinking since the issues defy simple conventional solutions similar to those in science or engineering (Daviter, 2017; Head, 2018). Therefore, these problems present a challenge to the traditional strategies of policy planning and development.

In the criminal justice realm, the challenges of mass incarceration, war on drugs, and gun control are not explicitly and accurately definable and are symbolic of other underlying societal issues. Policymakers seeking to address these issues are confronted by the dilemmas of societal pluralism, the intrinsic nature of the problem to the planning, and the disagreements of what constitutes social good (Rittel & Webber, 1973). In this regard, Pesch and Vermaas (2020) posit that these issues cannot be addressed through better administrative approaches or methods. Instead, societal matters ought to be integrated into the decision-making process to enrich the programs and enhance the ability to deal with the dilemmas. For instance, reevaluating the mandatory sentencing laws cannot address the challenge of mass incarceration.

Strategies to ‘Solve’ Wicked Problems

The social complexity of wicked problems rather than the technical complication overwhelms most current solutions and approaches. These challenges are socially complex and multicausal, implying that their comprehensive understanding and policy formulation is rarely within any organization or agency (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Wicked problems transcend agency boundaries, indicating that developing solutions should involve coordinated actions by such stakeholders and organizations as governmental organizations, private enterprises, and nonprofit entities (Sydelko et al., 2021). Waardenburg et al. (2020) contend that such an approach confers collaborative advantages, deepening the understanding of the problem. For instance, proposed solutions towards effectively addressing mass incarceration would require a multiagency method involving actors in the criminal justice system and organizations with an in-depth understanding of the social and economic oppression of ethnic minorities.

Another strategy of addressing the wicked problems is by utilizing systems thinking to enrich the understanding of how the distinct societal components interact and influence each other. In the article, Rittel and Webber (1973) posit that such an approach reinforces the practicality of the proposed solutions due to the broader insights obtained by breaking down information and collaborating with stakeholders. For instance, due to the multicausal nature of mass incarceration, systems thinking fosters the ability to leverage collective and multifaceted intelligence from all disciplines with relevant practical expertise. Saber and Silka (2020) and Wohlgezogen et al. (2020) corroborate this view and argue that interdisciplinary approaches bolster synergy, which is critical in solving deeply complex problems. Therefore, systems thinking provides a vital avenue of understanding the wicked challenges and synthesizing knowledge from diverse disciplinary perspectives.

Additionally, minimizing social distrust by integrating the input from all societal segments can significantly help address the wicked problems. As the societies become increasingly pluralistic, intergroup variations intensify, and the potential of building consensus is diminished substantially (Rittel & Webber, 1973). To mitigate the possibility of proposed strategies mutating into contentious issues among the subgroups, policymakers should strive to consider the distinctive attributes of each sub-public and integrate their insights into the implementation framework. For instance, in the United States, there is a broad agreement across the general population on the detrimental impacts of ineffective gun control in the country and the need for stringent regulation (Kruis et al., 2021). However, different societal subgroups hold diverse views on the most effective programs for addressing the problem. The outcome of such an approach is an innovative and personalized policy, which comprehensively captures the distinctive attributes of the sub-publics in a pluralistic society.

Other Possible Ways of Tackling Wicked Problems

Although most publications advocate collaborative approaches to address the wicked problems, other alternatives include adopting competitive and authoritative strategies. The former entails incentivizing the pursuit of such compelling objectives as power, influence, and market share. This implies that different stakeholders compete to develop and deliver solutions to a given problem while aspiring to derive some benefit. Alford and Head (2017) argue that this policy stimulates the formulation and generation of innovative ideas designed to exploit the available competencies to attain defined aspirations. For instance, business organizations can devote resources and develop programs through which gun sellers can swiftly scrutinize the profile of a prospective buyer to determine whether they qualify to make the purchase. Further, such a scheme can be combined with smart firearm technology and tracking abilities where a person’s biometrics are linked with the purchased gun. Although this would not summarily end the weapons problem in the United States, it would significantly minimize the potential of firearms being used by unauthorized persons and enhance their traceability.

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The authoritative approach entails conferring a small set of stakeholders the responsibility to develop solutions to a specific problem while others agree to abide by the decisions made. The stakeholders should be identified against their areas of expertise, knowledge, coercive power, and such attributes. The foundational philosophy of this plan is that the general population commits to comply with the formulated solutions with the formed organizations enforcing adherence in case of noncompliance.

Ethical Principles Best Suited for Dealing with Wicked Problems

Various ethical principles are inherent and indispensable components of addressing wicked problems. Notably, most of the decisions and policies developed to solve those issues seek to avoid or minimize further and impose ethical obligations on individuals and organizations for the benefit of the general public. For instance, Reittel and Webber (1973) note that different groups espouse diverse interests, and developed policies impacted these subgroups heterogeneously. In this regard, the utilitarian ethical principle is integral in addressing the wicked challenges since the developed approaches should aspire to generate the greatest good to benefit as most people as possible. Similarly, autonomy in a pluralistic society should ensure that the interests of one sub-public do not override those of another section of the society. Therefore, autonomy and utilitarianism are fundamental ethical principles best suited to address wicked problems.

Applying the Ethical Concepts in the Wicked Problem of War on Drugs

Since society generally acknowledges the detrimental impacts of opioids, applying the utilitarian concept would be informed by its ability to yield the greatest benefits to the most people. For instance, deaths associated with cocaine and psychostimulants overdose reached 70,237 in 2017 (McVay, 2021). These statistics highlight the pernicious and detrimental effects of drugs in the United States. Indeed, these figures illustrate the essence of applying all necessary strategies to promote the general population’s welfare. In this regard, any action or strategy which minimizes the pernicious effects of drugs on society is right and essential (Tangog & Bayod, 2021). Indeed, the compulsive pursuit for artificial enjoyment by individuals should not overshadow the realities of the destructive effects of drugs. Similarly, drug use undermines a person’s autonomy and rationality, thereby violating the duty to thyself. From this perspective, utilitarianism is an applicable concept in the war on drugs since it seeks to promote the welfare of the general populace.

Conclusion

Wicked problems are complex challenges, which are highly resistant to simple solutions. Their resolution requires broader, extensively collaborative, and innovative approaches due to their multicausal, undefinable, and interdependent nature. However, adopting a multiagency strategy, integrating competitive and authoritative dimensions in the policy formulation can significantly enhance the success of the proposed solutions. Moreover, incorporating such ethical principles as utilitarianism and autonomy could potentially bolster the effectiveness of the formulated policies, particularly in the war on drugs.

References

Alford, J., & Head, B. W. (2017). Wicked and less wicked problems: A typology and a contingency framework. Policy and Society, 36(3), 397−413. Web.

Daviter, F. (2017). Coping, taming or solving: Alternative approaches to the governance of wicked problems. Policy Studies, 38(6), 571−588. Web.

Kruis, N. E., Wentling, R. L., Frye, T. S., & Rowland, N. J. (2021). Firearm ownership, defensive gun usage, and support for gun control: Does knowledge matter? American Journal of Criminal Justice, 1–30. Advance online publication. Web.

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McVay, D. (2021). Drug overdose deaths in the US involving cocaine and psychostimulants on the rise. Drug Policy Facts. Web.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 152−169. Web.

Saber, D. A., & Silka, L. (2020). Food waste as a classic problem that calls for interdisciplinary solutions: A case study illustration. Journal of Social Issues, 76(1), 114−122. Web.

Sydelko, P., Midgley, G., & Espinosa, A. (2021). Designing interagency responses to wicked problems: Creating a common, cross-agency understanding. European Journal of Operational Research, 294(1), 250−263. Web.

Tangog, F. M. D., & Bayod, R. P. (2021). Defending moral obligation: Duterte’s dauntless war against drugs. Philosophy Study, 11(10), 785−796. Web.

Vermaas, P. E. & Pesch, U. (2020). Revisiting Rittel and Webber’s dilemmas: Designerly thinking against the background of new societal distrust. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 6(4), 530−545. Web.

Waardenburg, M., Groenleer, M., de Jong, J., & Keijser, B. (2019). Paradoxes of collaborative governance: Investigating the real-life dynamics of multiagency collaborations using a quasi-experimental action-research approach. Public Management Review, 22(3), 386−407. Web.

Wohlgezogen, F., McCabe, A., Osegowitsch, T., & Mol, J. (2020). The wicked problem of climate change and interdisciplinary research: Tracking management scholarship’s contribution. Journal of Management & Organization, 26(6), 1048-1072. Web.

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