Dening wicked problems for public policy: The case of Mexico’s disappearances
GAPP. Nueva Época – N.o 23, mayo-octubre 2020 – ISSN: 1989-8991 – DOI: 10.24965/gapp.i23.10648 – [Págs. 64-80]
que aumenta aún más la complejidad de las políticas que apuntan a enfrentarlo. Además, los resultados
del método de congruencia muestran que los responsables de la formulación de políticas estructuran
problemas complejos al definirlos, pero después de gastado una cierta cantidad de energía en esta tarea,
los responsables de la formulación de políticas emplean heurísticas. Esto contribuye a comprender cómo
los responsables de la toma de decisiones construyen políticas públicas.
Problemas perversos; política pública; definición del problema público; administración pública; desapariciones.
1. INTRODUCTION. 2. CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK. 2.1. WICKED PROBLEMS. 2.2. WICKED PRO-
BLEMS AND RATIONALITY: THE INSTRUMENTAL PERSPECTIVE AND BEYOND. 2.3. WICKED PRO-
BLEMS AND HEURISTICS: THE INSTITUTIONAL PERSPECTIVE AND BEYOND. 3. EMPIRICAL STUDY.
3.1. DISAPPEARANCES AS A WICKED PROBLEM. 3.2. WICKED DISAPPEARANCES IN THE MEXICAN
CONTEXT. 3.3. DISAPPEARANCES IN MEXICO. 4. IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSION. REFERENCES.
Wicked problems are increasingly popular (Xiang & Head, 2013). More and more situations and pro-
blems are being considered wicked, from climate change, to terrorism, passing through drug policy, crime,
public health, urban planning, poverty, disadvantaged groups, airport baggage handling, etc. Wickedness
generally refers to complex, ambiguous and uncertain problems that cannot be solved, but rather resolved
(Daviter, 2019; Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 160).
Rittel first coined the concept, while he was in the Architecture Department of the University of Califor-
nia, Berkeley, to refer to those problems that are «ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where
there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole
system are thoroughly confusing» (Churchman, 1967, p. B141). Initially, in addition of being a proposal for a
new category of problems, it was also a call for honesty in disclosing the entanglement of certain problems
and solutions (Rittel, 1972; Rittel & Webber, 1973).
Since then, the concept has been applied to a variety of situations and problems (Alford & Head, 2017;
Peters, 2017). It may very well be that globalization is the reason behind the increasing complexity of problems
(Courtney, 2001). However, if wickedness is the norm, then the concept will be less and less useful towards cons-
tructing a research agenda in wicked problems: conceptual stretching (Sartori, 1970) is not without consequences.
The literature on wicked problems can be divided into three types of research agendas. First, the concept
itself (Camillus, 2008; Head, 2008; Head & Alford, 2008; Kreuter, De Rosa, Howze, & Baldwin, 2004; McCall
& Burge, 2016; Roberts, 2000). Second, classifying a certain problem as wicked (Allen & Gould Jr., 1986;
Burge & McCall, 2014; Hunter, 2007; Kramer, 2011; Newman & Head, 2017; Salwasser, 2004). Third, once
a wicked problem has been identified, how to best tackle it (Briggs, 2007; Conklin, 2006; Grint, 2010; Klijn &
Koppenjan, 2014). On this third category, literature emphasizes the role of coordination and collaboration as
a way to tackling these problems (Bouckaert, Peters, & Verhoest, 2010; Daviter, 2017; Khademian & Weber,
2008; Lægreid & Rykkja, 2015; Roberts, 2000), which is transcendent within Public Administration theory,
notably post-New Public Management literature.
Nonetheless, there are scarce studies on the empirical relation between problem definition, wicked pro-
blems and public policy, especially in developing countries. This relation has been referred to as the «second-
generation approach» to wicked problems (Head, 2018).
My purpose is to address this relation, specifically regarding the role of Public Administration in problem
definition. The focus is on problem definition in practice, leaving its relation with policy implementation, policy
capacities, and other aspects of the policy process for further studies. The specific research question is: What
kind of problem definition strategy is adopted by Public Administration while facing wicked problems?
In order to answer this question, I set about to see which theoretical approach is more pertinent to ex-
plain how Public Administration defines wicked problems, between bounded rationality and heuristics, which
can be considered as derivation of the instrumental and institutional perspective, respectively (Christensen,
Lægreid, Roness, & Røvik, 2007). The case study is especially interesting, since Public Administration is a
source of the problem.