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Framing the Problem
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Framing the Problem

Key Concepts

  • Advocacy to get a problem on the agenda
  • Analysis to aid decision
  • Purposeful rhetoric

This reading applies communication and rhetoric principles to the definition of policy problems and the analysis of policy solutions.

How does public policy making begin? Typically, it starts with perception of a problem. Somebody perceives a condition in society or the environment to be wrong. Perceptions of a problem differ, so finding a solution often involves conflict. Or, it might enable cooperation.

Problems come to public attention in various ways. Sometimes the problem chooses you. Something happens, you are affected by it, and you seek public action to address the problem. The triggering event might be large-scale, as when the destructive hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged American coastal cities and states in 2005. After those storms, families of victims, local governments, and other collectives sought compensation or other action by federal government. In contrast, a triggering event might be small-scale, even personal and singular. Following her child’s death owing to a drunk driver, a parent formed the national nonprofit organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving to influence national law enforce­ment standards for drunk driving.

Sometimes you choose the problem. Choosers vary. For example, elected and appointed officials in government have authority to decide what is and is not a problem and which problems will receive attention. In the budgeting case (Public Policy Process), a governor and state legislative committees exemplify this kind of chooser. The food safety case (Public Policy Process) shows a regulatory agency head putting milk labeling on the agenda. Outside government, a chooser might be an advocacy group or a coalition of groups that brings a problem to legislative attention.

To influence policy making, the perception of a wrong is not enough. If public policy is to be a solution, the wrong must be defined as one that policy makers can address. For example, you might perceive that obesity is wrong because it harms individuals, but individual solutions cannot be legislated. However, if you define obesity as a public health problem, you can relate obesity to public health standards or to medical research in the causes of disease. Those are problems with broad societal significance that can be addressed by policy makers.

Problem definition is important. As the logical first move in a policy process, problem definition sets debate; it also predicts solution. Different definitions lead to different solutions. For example, even though health authorities define obesity as a health problem, the numbers of overweight and obese people especially in the United States continue to rise. Why, you wonder, are people fat despite health warnings? Your question redefines the problem, thereby revealing different potential solutions. By focusing on the experience of people in everyday life, you expose another set of conditions relevant to obesity, behavioral issues such as eating habits, physiological issues such as genetics, cultural issues such as food preferences, economic conditions such as food costs, and economic interests such as food industry profits. You point to solutions involving consumers, educators, businesses, and industries rather than healthcare providers.

Problem definition takes differences of perception into account. To a large degree, problem definition is subjective. One constituency’s problem is another’s acceptable status quo. Narrow and exclusive problem definition freezes possibility and invites competing solutions. Broad and inclusive definition imagines change and invites solution by a coalition. Purposeful rhetoric (who am I? whom do I address? how do I define the problem? how do others define it?) brings your assumptions and values to light, creates awareness of difference, and enables negotiation.

No matter how messy the process becomes, your action in a policy process is directed by your definition of the problem.

How to define a policy problem

Two purposes for defining a problem are presented in this chapter, getting a problem onto the public agenda (Purpose A) and aiding policy choice by analysis of solutions (Purpose B). Arguably, the two do not belong together in a chapter on problem definition.  Defining a problem is not solving it. From the perspective of communication, however, both defining problems and analyzing solutions rely on persuasion (Stone). And so, they are presented here for instruction in purposeful rhetoric. In practice, when you are defining a problem, it is crucial to remain aware of your purpose and not to confuse the two purposes, advocacy and analysis.

Goal: Ability to recognize problematic conditions and to define a policy problem they present.  For a recognized problem, ability to define policy options and offer criteria for decision.

Objective: Problem definition

Scope: Individual or collective; local or broader in impact; well-known or unrecognized; widely discussed or little considered; past, present, or anticipated

Strategy: Provide information necessary for your purpose

Expect to be flexible in the writing process. Problem definition can be iterative. After completing a task, you might find that you must revise earlier work. Or, after defining a problem, you might find that you want to, or you must, redefine it because conditions have changed or you have gained more knowledge.

Summary and Looking Forward

This reading tells you that problem definition is fundamental in policy work, that problems can be defined differently, and, so, persuasive argumentation is a valuable skill.

Learn more about the purposes and tasks involved in framing a problem.


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Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. Second ed. CQ Press, 2005.

Garner, Diane L., and Diane H. Smith. The Complete Guide to Citing Government Information Resources: A Manual for Writers and Librarians. Rev. ed. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service, 1993.

Stone, Deborah. Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making, Rev.ed. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2002.