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Framing the Problem
Purposes and Tasks for Defining the Problem
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Framing the Problem:
Purposes and Tasks for defining a policy problem

People have different purposes for framing problems and different purposes involve different communication tasks.

Purpose A: Get a Problem onto the Public Agenda

You want to bring public attention to a problem of concern to you. It might be known to others, but only recently familiar to you. Or you might be aware of a problem of which others are unaware. In any case, you must understand the problematic conditions well.

To develop your understanding, follow an approach of observation and inquiry. Do the tasks below in sequence. Results of one task will help you perform the next one. (Note: This task outline assumes that you are a novice in problem definition.)

Task #1. Describe the Problem and Identify the Stakeholders

The first step is to describe the problem and name the interested parties, or stakeholders. This involves recognizing problematic conditions, identifying the problem that those conditions create, and specifying individuals as well as collectives that have a stake in the problem or its solution. To increase your awareness of the problem and to recognize public interests in it, you can proceed in any of the following ways.

Work from observation of experiences, practices, effects:

  • Note likes/dislikes about your (or others’) daily routine
  • List good/bad aspects of your current or past job(s) or a family member’s or a friend’s job(s)
  • Sit for an hour in the office of a service provider to observe people affected by the problem and to observe the practices of policy implementers
  • Visit locales affected by the conditions or the policy to observe impacts on physical environments

Work from subjective constructions:

  • Listen to or read stories (actual or imagined) that refer to the problem
Work from unfinished business:
  • Reexamine a neglected need
  • Revive a former interest
  • Return to an incomplete project

Work from anticipation:

  • Imagine the consequences if particular things continue as they are

Work from ignorance:

  • Choose a matter that concerns others (but is unfamiliar to you) that you want to know more about

Work from knowledge:

  • Consider the concern technically, informed by your (or others’) expertise

Work from values:

  • Consider the concern ethically or legally, informed by your (or others’) ideals or commitments

Task #2. Specify the Issues

When a problem has been identified, it is not yet a policy matter until its issues for policy are specified. Issues refer to stake­holders’ concerns, political disagreements, and value conflicts. To recognize issues, you might:

Think about impacts of the problem.

  • Who or what is affected by it?
  • Conceive the problem narrowly and then broadly. Is it individual and local or more widespread?
  • Conceive it broadly and then narrowly. Is it widely distributed or concentrated?

Think about attitudes.

  • How do different stakeholders perceive the problem?
  • What values (ideals, beliefs, assumptions) are expressed in their definitions?

Think about authority.

  • How do stakeholders want to address the problem?
  • Do they see government action as a solution?
  • Do they agree or disagree on government’s role?

Task #3. Offer Solutions (If You Are Proposing a Solution)

Solutions typically rely on policy instruments that government can use (Bardach). These include actions such as spending more or spending less and starting or ending programs. If you already have a positive and feasible solution to suggest, do so. (Generally, problem descriptions with a proposed solution get more attention.) If you don’t have a proposal, if you want to counter a proposal, or if you want to create fresh alternatives, stimulate your thinking with any of these approaches:

  • Review the problematic conditions with a fresh eye, looking for unnoticed solutions
  • Reconsider a tried-but-failed or a known-but-ignored solution to find new potential
  • Look at the problem from a different perspective (a different stakeholder’s, for example)
  • Assign it to a different governmental level or jurisdiction if government already addresses the problem
  • Consult with nonprofit groups and nongovernmental organizations that are concerned about the problem
  • Consider doing nothing (keep things as they are)

Task #4. Write the Document: Problem Description

Before you write, use the Method to make yourself aware of the rhetorical framework (audience, purpose, context, situation) for your communication. Write with that framework in mind.

Problem descriptions can be presented in varied document types. If the type is prescribed for you, use it in accordance with your rhetorical framework. If you are free to choose the document type, choose one that fits your audience, purpose, context, and situation. Here are two options:

  • Letter, memorandum, or report describing problematic conditions, possibly identifying causes of the conditions
  • Letter, memorandum, or report conveying informed opinion, possibly advocating an approach to the problem.

In the cases for this section (see right menu), you can see memoranda written by professionals who are also graduate students and a report written by professionals. For letters, go to these respected sources:

Problem descriptions in any form are expected to answer the following questions:

  • What are the problematic conditions? What problem do they cause?
  • What are the issues for policy? What is your concern? What is your intended reader’s concern?
  • Who else is concerned (on all sides)?
  • What are the key disagreements and agreements among those concerned?
    (optional)
  • What plausible and realistic solution can you offer?

You must cite the sources to which your problem description refers. Use the citation style prescribed, or choose either

Both APA and MLA style guides tell you how to cite a range of source types including government documents. (For example, see Citing Government Information Sources Using MLA Style at http://www.knowledgecenter.unr.edu/subjects/guides/government/cite.html.)

For further help with citing government sources, consult Garner and Smith’s The Complete Guide to Citing Government Information Resources: A Manual for Writers and Librarians (rev. ed.).

After you write, check your document’s quality against appropriate checklists.

Purpose B: Aid Policy Choice by Analysis of Solutions

A problem is recognized. Policy alternatives for addressing it are under consideration. You are asked or you wish to present a definition of the problem and a review of policy alternatives. Your intended audience might be policy makers, an interested community, or the general public. Follow a strategy of formal analysis using quantitative or qualitative methods. (Note: The task outline assumes that you are prepared to perform—outside the tasks listed here—appropriate technical analysis needed to answer the questions.)

Task #1. Identify the problem and the stakeholders.

  • What is the problem? What brings it to attention?
  • Why does the problem occur? What conditions lead to it?
  • Whose behavior is affected, or whose concerns are relevant? Who are the target beneficiaries of solutions to the problem? Who are the implementers of policy to solve it?
  • What stake does each (affected groups, target beneficiaries, implementers of policy) have in the problem?
  • How does each define the problem?
  • What ideals and values (equity, liberty, efficiency, security, loyalty) or ideologies (vision of how the world is or how it should be) are expressed in each definition?
  • What conflicts of values or ideologies are evident among stakeholders?
  • How does politics influence the problem?

Task #2. Specify alternative solutions and relevant criteria for evaluating them.

  • What are the goals/objectives of a public policy to solve this problem?
  • What policy instruments might achieve the goals/ objectives?
  • What are at least two (alternative) policies to meet the need?
  • What are the relevant criteria for choosing the best one? How do stakeholders weigh the criteria?
  • How appropriate are the weights? What are the trade-offs among criteria?
  • What would be the outcome of each alternative according to criteria you consider relevant?

Task #3. Recommend an alternative and explain your reasoning (if you are making a recommendation).

  • Which policy option or instrument do you recommend? Why is it best? Why are other alternatives worse?
  • What is the basis for your recommendation? What type of analysis supports it?
  • How will your choice affect stakeholders?
  • On what conditions (political, economic, organizational) does successful implementation of your choice depend?
  • What are the constraints (political, economic, organizational) on implementing your choice?

Task #4. Write the document: policy analysis with (or without) recommendation.

Before you write, use the Method to consider your communication rhetorically and to plan it. After you write, use the appropriate checklists to assess the document and revise as needed.

Policy analysis is communicated in varied document types. If a particular type is prescribed for you, use it in accordance with your intended purpose and audience. Policy studies courses might prescribe a policy analysis memo, for instance.  If you are free to choose, you might use either a memo or an extended discussion paper.

Policy analyses in any form are expected to:

  • Characterize a problem according to its size, scope, incidence, effects, perceptions of it, and influences on it
  • Identify policy choices available to address the problem
  • Offer perspectives to assist choice making
  • Specify the basis for selecting any proposed recommendation (the type of analysis performed), the effects for different groups, and the factors that will affect its implementation

You must cite the sources to which your policy analysis refers. Use the citation style prescribed, or choose either

Both APA and MLA style guides tell you how to cite a range of source types including government documents. (For example, see Citing Government Information Sources Using MLA Style at http://www.knowledgecenter.unr.edu/subjects/guides/government/cite.html.) For further help with citing government sources, consult Garner and Smith’s The Complete Guide to Citing Government Information Resources: A Manual for Writers and Librarians (rev. ed.).

Scenario 1 for Purpose A

A graduate studying policy writing also serves as the Chief of Patient Information in the Surgeon General’s Office, US Reserve Armed Forces. She deals with a health care issue.

Read more...

Scenario 2 for Purpose A

An attorney practicing civil law is also a graduate studying policy writing. He is concerned about the use of cell phones by drivers of cars.

Read more...

Scenario 1 for Purpose B

This is a brief with recommendations written by professional policy analysts for a public policy think tank concerned with finding solutions to problems caused by poverty.

Read more...

Scenario 2 for Purpose B

This report describes a recognized problem and recommends a solution. It is written by professional policy and program analysts in the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the auditing, research, and investigative staff of the Congress.
Read more...

Task Outline for Purpose A

Download the Task Worksheet in .pdf.


Download the Task Worksheet in .rtf.

Task Outline for Purpose B

Download the Task Worksheet in .pdf.


Download the Task Worksheet in .rtf.