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Problem Definition (Project 1)

A policy making process starts with defining the problem.  A policy problem definition has three main components: description of influential conditions and interests, history of prior governmental action or inaction, and persuasive argument.  To create those components, you need skills of observation, information gathering, and analysis or reflection (to describe); conducting records research (to trace government action); using logic and persuasion (to argue).

In project # 1, problem definition, you will produce these functional communications: a preliminary problem description, a legislative history, an analysis of argumentation, and a finished problem definition.   We’ll discuss the format of presentation for each—a report? a briefing paper? —later.   For now, focus on understanding these pragmatic demands of policy formulation—knowing the problematic conditions, knowing the record of action, knowing the range of arguments, and arguing a position.

Assignments (below) guide you through making the choices, developing the knowledge, and producing the documents to communicate your work.

Week 1 (January 8)

Introduce yourself in the forum Intros. Tell us about your program of study or your job, your other interests, and a little about your wishes and fears for this course (due 1/10).


*Respond to Smith and Stone readings by saying what surprises you, and what confirms your prior ideas, in both texts. Then, say what's different. or how the two texts contrast in their content and approach (due 1/12).


Description of the problem

Week 2 (January 15)
  • read Example 4 "Military Pay" to see how US Government Accounting Office professionals describe policy problems.  (This is an example, not a model.) 
  • respond to Week 2 readings (Smith, Stone) in forum Responses (due 1/17)
  • to identify the problem you will work on throughout the semester, make a list of 'wrongs' that interest you, then select ONE on which you will focus (See Task #1 for framing a problem, below, for guidance
  •  in addition, select your purpose for working on that problem, purpose A or B   (Purpose A is the default.  Choose A unless you have background in governance or a reason for choosing B.)
  • do Task #1 (use the task outline for your selected purpose, A or B)
  • according to your chosen purpose, write a preliminary description (A) or an initial policy analysis (B) that acknowledges minimum expectations of that purpose.  To meet each expectation on the appropriate list, state what you know at this point.  If you don’t know, specify what you must find out.  Problem descriptions must include information or intentions for information gathering for each question on the list. (@ 500 words due 1/24).

Government Action or Inaction on the Problem

Week 3 ( January 22)
  • do Task #1 to review the legislative process.  Allow time to read and absorb.  This is essential preparation for researching government records!  Without knowledge of record types—e.g., what’s the difference between a bill and a law?  What’s the force of a resolution? —you cannot intelligently search legislative records, which are organized by record type.
  • do the following warm-up exercise to get familiar with the primary tools you will use for research in this assignment, the government databases Thomas (Library of Congress) and Congressional (Lexis-Nexis).   Allow time to do this exercise several times, in order to become comfortable using several functions each tool can perform for you—e.g., alternative searching methods, good to know when your first try fails.  The exercise introduces you to a fundamental reality of government records research, necessity to know the controlled vocabulary each database uses---e.g., the information you seek is accessed by different names in different databases.  A major cause of failed searches is using the wrong name (in that database) for the information. This is easily remedied by checking first to see how your database-of-choice categorizes and names that information. In addition, the exercise practices a helpful research tactic for learning the legislative history of a topic, searching across multiple record types—e.g., trace a topic through proposed bills (various versions), deliberation in hearings, debate prior to voting, enacted legislation (statutes), and, if you’re lucky and there is one for your topic, committee reports that summarize much of what you seek to learn.
  • from your problem description, choose subject terms (names of topics or concepts to search for in legislative records in the Library of Congress's database Thomas and the Lexis-Nexis database Congressional, search for your subject terms in all the following record types:

a. Statutes (public laws)

b. Committee reports (and joint conference report, if there is one) on relevant statutes

c. Remarks, debates, summaries in the Congressional Record especially by principal sponsors of relevant bills

d. Bills in various proposed versions (House, Senate, in different Congresses) to see significant differences among versions

e. Witness statements in relevant committee hearings


Week 4 (January 29)
  • decide your research strategy  (decide whether you will research a single law's history or an issue's history consisting of many bills and laws).  Make the decision with two factors in mind.  The first factor is the nature of the action to date—does your problem of concern have a narrow history (one law, modified over time) or a wide history (many bills or many laws directly or indirectly affecting the problem, or many significant modifications in the original law?)  The second factor is to think about is the rhetorical situation of your problem definition—what is your purpose, advocacy (A) or analysis (B)?  who is your intended audience?  What does that audience need to know, in order to comprehend and consider your advocacy or your analysis? E.g., do they require information on what has happened over time to one law (narrow) or on the scope of concern for the problem (wide)?  Note:  you might begin your searches using one strategy, then find that the other strategy is better, given the nature of action to date.   It’s OK to change strategies (but not topics) or to combine strategies, if needed.  If you change strategies, probably you need to re-cast the rhetorical situation, too.  The strategy should always be in synch with your rhetorical situation.
  • conduct research using databases Thomas and Congressional (Essential to start soon!  Allow for a steep learning curve at first!   Even after you know what you’re doing, allow for stop-and-go progress.   Like solving a mystery, government records research has many unexpected developments and tantalizing distractions.  You will spend much time going one step forward, two steps back or aside, then another step forward.  You will find interesting, only indirectly relevant, stuff.  Government records are a treasure trove of information on all subjects.   Manage your time!  Focus!
  • get help when needed in any or several of these ways:
  • ask your small group to help you resolve glitches in using the databases (Your peers have probably experienced the glitch, too, and somebody might have worked it out.)
  • ask Joyner librarians for help with government documents or with database searching (Access government information specialist Bryna Coonin, English departmental specialist Joseph Thomas, or the virtual reference desk.  Librarians are trained experts in performing research.  In my experience, as well as that of previous 7765 students, Joyner’s librarians are excellent, and very accessible.)  (Access information at Library Research for ENGL 7765, Helpful Hints.)
    • contact the instructor during virtual office hours (TBA) about research strategy, scope, or reporting
    • to get the best help, always provide sufficient details (your problem's topic and your purpose and audience for the research) as background for your specific request


Week 5 (February 5)
  • continue research and get help as needed
Week 6 (February 12)
  • draft your legislative history (including all text and citations)
  • review Resources for Citing Sources. Clear, accurate citation of government documents in legislative history reporting is very important!
  • post working draft in small group forum (due 2/14)
  • get group feedback on your draft's logical organization and correct citation style
  • post final legislative history report in the digital drop box (due 2/19))

Argument regarding the problem

Week 7 (February 19)

Week 8 (February 26)

  • post your argument outline in your small group forum (Due 2/28)
  • post your response to Stone and to Smith on public policy argumentation (see calendar for assigned readings) in the new forum Policy Argument (Due 3/5)
  • in anticipation of writing a final problem definition that conveys your 1) understanding of problematic conditions and the problem they create, 2) government action/inaction on the problem, 3) ideas and metaphors, as well as agreements and disagreements, shown in argumentation on the problem, and 4) your position, do the following activities before you write:
  •  plan your problem definition using a General Method for Communicating in a Policy Process
  • choose your format for representing the problem from the following:
    • interpretive policy analysis (e.g Stone’s “Policy Paradox in Action” (pp. 386-415) (Your analysis will be briefer, @ 1500 words.) (academic genre)
    • briefing memo (business and government genre)
    • petition or proposal (government genre)
    • public comment (government genre)
  • draft a problem definition in your selected format
  • post the draft in your small group forum when ready
  • get group feedback on your draft, using the checklists of standard criteria for guidance
  • revise draft as needed to meet standard criteria
  • if assigned by the instructor, revise for concise sentence structure (Williams, Basics of Clarity and Grace)
  • do a final check of the product against standard criteria
  • put the final product in the digital drop box (Due 3/6)


Transition to public deliberation

Public processes rely not only on written documentation but also on spoken interaction. In public policy work, you must be able to write it, say it, and interact about it. The most important forms of oral communication for a public policy process are not speeches. They are workaday briefings for elected officials and their staffs, committee public hearings, and other genres of face-to-face (still the favored form of) public interaction.

In Project #2, public deliberation, you will practice skills of crafting written statements for oral presentation followed by questions and answers (Q+A). You will perform the role of spokesperson for a group, organization, or administrative agency in public deliberation. You will ask and answer questions in accord with your policy communication purpose, either to get a problem on the public agenda or to aid policy decision-making.   Potential communication products are:

•         written testimony statement with summary to be delivered orally

*         written questions and answers in a (simulated) public hearing transcript


The format for our practice of public deliberation, project #2, has not been decided yet.   Depending on several factors, the format will be chosen from the following options:

  • simulated Congressional committee hearings (using B’board’s virtual classroom or another electronic venue) in which you present in a chosen role
  • actual public forum (find-your-own governmental hearing, roundtable, or other public event) in which you present in a chosen role
  • other appropriate public activities of policy making in which you present in a chosen role.

The plan will be announced in Blackboard and shown in the course calendar when it's ready.


Now, change gears (or keys, or hats).  We are moving from problem definition (written presentation for print reading) to public deliberation about problems (written presentation for mutiple media and interactive use).   To re-orient to this more complex type of communication, immerse yourself in public deliberations. Familiarize yourself with practices of interacting publicly about issues.  The example offered here is Congressional committee hearings.  You are encouraged to find additional examples and observe them, as well.


Week 9 (March 5)

  • watch 2 hours (at least; more is better) of 'live' committee hearings on C-SPAN (may be a hearing, or several different hearings, but at least 1 continuous hour of statements and questions/answers in a hearing)
  • if available, watch local government meetings on public access cable television, or attend a local government meeting
  • analyze oral presentation and Q+A in clips from a hearing on agro-terrorism; use Stone reading on "Symbols" as guidance (See Video Resources)
  • post your analysis of the agroterrorism hearing clips in the forum Responses (Due 3/9)
  • begin thinking ahead to project #2 by choosing an organization that you might represent (speak for) on the chosen problem(seeTask # 2, identify groups or organizations active on your issue, for guidance)

Spring Break (March 11-18)



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