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Chapter 3: Problem Definition in Policy Analysis
Introduction
Policy making is largely about trying to solve problems and so the nature
of the problems is critical
Triad of a Public Policy: Definition, goals, and instruments
oThere is a general consensus that definition does need to come
first
oDunn, “problem structuring is a central guidance system or
steering mechanism that affects the success of all subsequent
phases of policy analysis.”
oYou have to know there is a problem and what kind of problem it
is before you go on to try and solve it (will have much better
success if there is definition)
oEX: before, obesity in the western world was seen as a personal
issue. Only after organizations like the American Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, examined its role as potential
number one leading cause of preventable death (overtaking
smoking), did it become a policy problem.
oEven if there is a general agreement over the problem of an
issue, solutions are not as easily acquired
As per Stone (2002), “a problem definition is a statement of a goal and
the discrepancy between it and the status quo.”
oHowever, everyone has different opinions and perceptions on
problems and solutions
Governments need to make decisions because they do have finite time
and resources. They ask themselves the following:
o1. By what political and intellectual processes are problems
defined
o2. What are the generic elements of a problem definition
o3. How are some problems chosen to be on the political/policy
agenda while other languish in obscurity
o4. What impact does problem definition have on subsequent
stages of the policy process
o“It all depends”- not systematic and has a strong socio-
psychological dimension
Problem Definition- Key Issues
What is a problem?
oA substantial discrepancy between what is and what should be
(not what could be). There needs to be some realistic opportunity
though.
oUnrealized needs, values, or opportunities for improvement
oThree components to these definitions:
Reality (what is, the unrealized needs or values)
A desired state of affairs ( what should be, the
improvement)
The gap between them (the discrepancy)
The recognition of a problem depends on the attention it has and the
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attention it has depends on its relevance to society or certain groups of
people
There are indicators to these problems such as STATS can, research
groups etc.
There are also “Focusing Events” which are sudden events/crisis that
grab attention (ex: SARS)
Problem definition is the proves of taking some indicator that a problem
exists and answering the following:
o1. Looking at the indicator and its relation to the phenomenon it is
representing
o2. Why did it happen and how? What matrix of cause and effect is
at work?
o3. What action to take in the event that there is a “real” problem
at stake? If this a problem that can be solved and who should
solve it? Is this a problem the government should solve? (public,
private, etc)
oExperts on the matter (ie: economists for economic issues, etc)
will be able to answer these questions more fully
oThe object however, is to address and if possible solve the
problem in some practical way
Problem Structuring: a key way in determining these questions and
developing answers to them (as per Dunn)
oProblems can be well structured (small set of alternatives and
decision makers) or ill structures (uncertainty, competing
objectives/alternatives)
oUse the techniques (box 3.1/3.2)
Policy Images: a mixture of empirical information and emotive appears
that explain the issue and justify the public policy response
oDon’t have time to think of the techniques all the time
oGive a sense of the tone of the problem/policy according to
positive/negative
Problem Definition (box 3.2): process of shaping a persuasive argument
about the nature of the problem and of course, the solution.
oIt is really important to look at causation
oThe causal images we use can differ in their emphasis on
individual responsibility or systemic sources
oNovelty, proximity, and crisis can help look at the urgency
oSeverity really helps look at what kind of policy/how fast things
need to be done
BOX 3.1: Methods of Problem Structuring
In Box 3.1 there are various methods as well as descriptions listed for problem
solving. Some of these include the following:
Boundary Analysis: It incorporates the whole range of current definitions
for a given problem and has three parts (1.saturation sampling, 2.
problem representations, 3. boundary estimation)
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