Intelligent modes of imperfect governance

Duco Bannink*, Willem Trommel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In this article, we aim to show that the treatment of wicked problems in the literature on public administration approaches is inadequate. We briefly discuss the literature on wicked problems and propose a conceptualization of wicked problems that, we think, shows the core of the problem of wicked problems. Wicked problems, we argue, are wicked because the factual and normative aspects of the issues are intertwined at actor-level. As a result, the phenomena that Rittel and Webber observed at problem level emerge. This has strong implications for public administration. Since actors are deciding on responses, a wicked problem evokes, what we call, a double governance challenge. The governance mechanisms provided in the literature on public administration approaches, also the new ones, do not provide responses to such double challenge. They either assume that actors do not build upon their own, actor-level factual and normative evaluations or that some compiled actor or supra-actor might overcome the limitations of the actors that together constitute the collective level of wicked problem response. Making such assumptions, they apparently conceptualize the wicked problem as non-wicked. Therefore, re-iterating, wicked problems are indeed wicked: solutions that implicitly conceptualize the wicked problem as non-wicked might be perfect, but seem unintelligent. A wicked problem, we argue, does not allow perfect, but instead requires imperfect, but intelligent responses. In this paper, we then discuss four such intelligently imperfect responses. They are necessarily imperfect in the sense that they cannot be considered to completely cover the problem, but intelligent in the sense that they truly acknowledge its wickedness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)198-217
Number of pages20
JournalPolicy and Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Feb 2019


  • governance
  • new governance
  • Wicked problems


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