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Rules of thumb for structuring problems

5 December 2023



An article in Policy Design and Practice provides practitioners with policy design rules-of-thumb for both problem finding and problem solving. This process translates unstructured problems from “messes” of undesirable situations to specific, time-and-space bound opportunities for improvement. The article deconstructs problem-structuring as an iterative process of problem sensing, problem categorisation, problem decomposition and problem definition.

Types of policy problems

The article outlines four types of policy problems:

  • unstructured problems
  • moderately structured problems with agreement on goals and norms
  • moderately structured problems with agreement on relevant and available knowledge
  • structured problems.

It proposes four guiding principles for addressing structured or moderately structured problems:

  • a sensitivity to problems
  • a frame-reflective attitude
  • the skill to shift between forward and backward mapping styles of design
  • savviness to move between design as analytic puzzling and political struggle against
  • opposition or powering.

Sensitivity to problems

For politics and policy design, the question-answer link is crucial. All politics is grounded in accepted or imposed rules for questioning and answering. The question-answer divide is amplified by the division of labour in a representative democracy: ruled citizens ask questions and ruling policymakers select persuasive and authoritative answers.

To maintain productive relations between policy design and public debate means responsible policy design is responsive to citizens’ problems. It takes sensitivity to citizens’ problem perceptions and experiences to keep professional political and policy discourses connected to the questions that drive public debate in citizens’ pub and kitchen-table talk.

Rule-of-thumb 1: Be aware of the weakness of the question-answer links in everyday, political, policy and scientific discourse. Be alert to uncover triggering but suppressed questions.

Frame reflectiveness

In practice, problem awareness also requires frame reflectiveness. This means surfacing the often-tacit questions assumptions that drive debates about policy. These can be thought of as the invisible under-water nine-tenths of the visible tip of an iceberg. Frames are the links between worries, concerns and fears that initiate a probe for a meaningful response. Combined with questioning, framing shapes the substantive problems which form the content of the policy process.

Frames allow you to select and foreground the dimensions of problematic situations, screen out or background less salient features, and yet bind the whole into a coherent pattern. Framing can also be a hidden process that is embedded in a dominating policy discourse and can be a strategic tool for exercising power as it offers opportunities to systematically promote one solution over others.

Rule-of-thumb 2: Know your way in the most important frames in political, policy and scientific discourses; pay special attention to frames outside the mainstream of unquestioned political and policy discourses.

Alternating between forward and backward mapping

Frame-reflectiveness requires a wide view of relevant actors’ frames in the entire policy network. This means a balance between the forward mapping perspectives of politicians and policy entrepreneurs, and the backward mapping perspectives of implementers and citizens as target groups of the policy.

Forward mapping is the thought style of policy entrepreneurs, politicians and high-level policymakers. They think in the groove of change and policy innovation is inherently desirable. The logical next step is to translate them in policy objectives, programs and instruments. This design logic can be over-optimistic about a government’s capacity to initiate or impose change.

In responsive policy design, backward mapping is equally required. Backward mapping from the implementers’ perspective means designing from the skills, capacities and preparedness of the agencies in the anticipated implementation process. A second type of backward mapping is taking the target group’s or citizens’ perspective. The policy designer puts themselves in the shoes of those who will be required to change their knowledge, attitude, or behaviour as a condition for achieving central policy goals.

Rule-of-thumb 3: Policy design requires familiarity with both forward and backward mapping styles of policy design, and the ability to see them as making up for each other’s shortcomings.

Moving back and forth between puzzling and exercising power

Public policy design is embedded in a political task environment. The practice of policy design is therefore inevitably a mix of fighting over and reasoning out policy – a mix of puzzling/exercising power. Policy designers should have the political savviness to see why their next move on the “chess board” of strategic design is determined by the knockout swing of an antagonistic bureaucratic agency. Practically, the policy designer should see puzzling/powering as a dynamic dual process, propelled by pulses of now puzzling, then exercising power.

Rule-of-thumb 4. Policy design is fighting over and reasoning out policy – both, intertwined and simultaneously. From a practical point of view, it is best considered an alternating process. Policy designers should be able to stand the “political heat” in the “design kitchen”.

The bottom line

Problem structuring is both a cognitive, analytic and political process. Top-down or bottom-up, good policy requires problem-structuring policy analysis and design. The article argues that only a method of policy design that pays equal attention to the functions of problem sensitivity, frame reflection, forward and backward mapping, and shifting between puzzling and exercising power, may achieve a politically responsible and legitimate problem definition. It takes analytical and political acumen to achieve this.

Want to read more? 

Rules-of-thumb for problem-structuring policy design – Robert Hoppe, Policy Design and Practice, March 2018

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Published Date: 5 December 2023