Environmental Health: Wicked, I’n’it?

In 1973, Rittel and Witter told us that scientific bases to address social policy issues are bound to fail because some problems are “wicked” in that they are complex, multi-faceted in pluralist society, often contested as there is no right or wrong solution or answer, they are difficult to define and finding definitive and objective solutions is highly challenging.

Does this sound familiar in environmental health? I think so too! Rittel and Witter talk about modern professionals (whom we now refer to as front line practitioners, see also Rob’s blog below, Revisiting Lipsky’s street level bureaucracy, June 13th 2013 – also 1970s and US based) including social workers, housers, city planners and public health officials. We continue to have much to learn and take on board about how we respond to complex dilemmas presented and the difficult questions we need to address.

In a lengthier piece, Jordan (2011) calls for innovative and skillful change strategies to deal with these so-called wicked issues and develops a conceptual framework  to help us work through some of the challenges presented suggesting that knowledge gained can help further inform effective strategies. Both are well worth a read. It is also helpful to refer to the Australian Public Service Commission Archive which urges public services managers to reflect on wicked problems and consider new and innovative approaches to complex policy issues.

Stewart and Gritton (forthcoming 2014) grapple with some of these issues in a chapter in new book that may be of interest to those with a wider interest in the wellbeing agenda:  Knight, A., McNaught, A. and La Placa, V. (eds) (forthcoming 2014) Wellbeing: Policy and Practice, Lantern Publishing. We look at some of the complexities presented around families living in the private rented sector as well as housing for our ageing population – each complex for different reasons and with no easy solutions.

There seems huge potential here to think through and publish more about what we do with the wicked problems we tackle in environmental health. It doesn’t need a major research project or funding, just an investment of time and energy.

Any takers?

Have a good rest of Wednesday,


Jordan, T. (2011) Skilful Engagement with Wicked Issues: A Framework for Analysing the Meaning-making Structures of Societal Change Agents, Integral Review, 7 (2) 47-91.

Rittel, H. R. and Webber, M. W. (1973) Dilemmas in a General theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

Stewart, J. and Gritton, J. (in press 2014) The Living Environment and Wellbeing: Wicked Problems, Wicked Solutions? (Chapter 6), in Knight, A., McNaught, A. and La Placa, V. (eds) Wellbeing: Policy and Practice, Lantern Publishing.



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