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Research Program

Summary of the Research Program

Public administrations are expected to be able to cope with problems. Increasingly, many of these are seen both by practitioners and by policy and organizational theorists as ‘wicked problems’. Policy issues ranging from food safety to counter-terrorism, climate change or migration have come to be interpreted as inter-connected, multi-dimensional problem constellations rather than easily identifiable single issues with a clear territorial locus or readily identifiable causal origin. In analytical terms, this type of policy issue is characterised by a combination of simultaneously high levels of complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity, with far-reaching repercussions for organizational boundaries, attentiveness and problem-solving capacity.

Public administrations today are confronted with unprecedentedly complex tasks across a wide range of issues, requiring sophisticated management skills, complex structures of delegation, discretion, coordination and control, and exceptionally challenging information requirements. As a result, the question of how public administrations can acquire the requisite knowledge, ensure appropriate coordination and devise appropriate strategies has moved to the forefront of debate both for practitioners and in research in the social sciences.

Often-discussed examples of ‘wicked problems’ include geo- and climate hazards, long-term welfare state reforms, gender equality, or, especially over the last decade, networked security. It is not difficult to see that policy complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity have potentially profound implications for how administrations acquire, select, interpret, process and apply information, evidence and expertise, ensure effective coordination within and across organizational boundaries, and make strategic decisions and develop strategic capabilities.

The Research Training Group’s goal is to foster empirical research into, and theoretical reflection on, the interrelationships between wicked problems and contested organizational change in public administrations along the interconnected dimensions of organizational knowledge, coordination and strategy. We ask how policy complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity are handled organizationally, within and across organizations; what factors shape organizational developmental trajectories; and what patterns emerge in terms of substantive change.

WIPCAD especially encourages work that goes beyond the analysis of formal structures and processes. Our research pays attention to individual, organizational and environmental observations; has a comparative dimension – across time, administrative settings, levels, policy fields or, where appropriate, countries; shows theoretical awareness and ambition; and is innovative in the methods employed for qualitative and quantitative data collection, analysis and interpretation.