Pal’s Aspects of Problem Definition

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below, p. 97) notes that policymaking is, in large measure, about trying to solve problems.

“… and so the nature of those problems – how they are defined – is central to the entire process. But defining problems is not merely a technical exercise; it entails political and strategic manoeuvres, insofar as problem definition sets the tone for successive stages in the process. Framing problems draws on a wide variety of ingredients, from scientific expertise to conventional wisdom and rhetoric. In a democracy, it always means shaping arguments in ways that capture public attention and support.”

Aspects of policy arguments and problem definition

Pal writes (page 105-108):

“Problem structuring or definition therefore involves various techniques aimed at probing an issue that has been signalled in some way as a possible policy problem. The process of problem definition is one of shaping a persuasive argument about the nature of the problem and, of course, the solution. Of what does that argument consist? Rochefort and Cobb (1994) offer a scheme that captures some of the key elements, summarized in Box 3.1.

“Not every problem definition or policy argument will contain all these characteristics, but most will be present. The definer has to deal with the question of causation. Without an idea of why the problem exists there is no way to figure out what to do about it. The causal images we use can differ in their emphasis on individual responsibility or systemic sources. Is poverty a result of individual decisions and choices or of larger economic forces? Definitions can also differ in the degree of complexity of their causal portraits. Inevitably, however, policy action can be taken only across a narrow range of factors so that the causal assumptions in most policy-relevant problem definitions are usually limited. The severity of the problem is another important characteristic. A problem may be acknowledged, but it might be innocuous enough not to matter in policy terms (e.g., the radiation effects of cellphones). This often gets connected to the incidence of the problem in the sense of how different groups in the population are directly affected. The debate of legalizing prostitution focuses on the problem effects on women; high school dropout rates focus on youth (especially boys, who drop out at much higher rates than girls).

“Novelty, proximity, and crisis are all elements that help heighten the urgency of a problem. In recent years, the way in which a problem definition portrays potential target populations of policy interventions has received more attention (Schneider & Ingram, 1997, 2005) on the sound assumption that policies are more than just instruments for solving problems: “Public policies that serve democracy need to garner support, stimulate civic engagement, and encourage cooperation in the solution of problems” (Ingram & Schneider, 2006, p. 180). Policies also convey signals about how policymakers picture recipients of government programs. Welfare programs are typically paternalistic, building on and conveying the image that welfare recipients cannot plan their own lives and must be watched carefully for fraud. Having a negative image of a target population (e.g., prostitutes, drug users) can interfere with clear-eyed policy responses to the problems faced by that population, another aspect of the symbolic or expressive dimension of policy. Often what matters most about a problem is not whether it can be solved or managed but how it will be solved or managed. What we do (in this case, collectively as a political community) says much about who we are.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Problem Definition and Agenda Setting (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101 Policy Analysis and Process.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

References cited by Pal in the excerpt above are:

“Ingram, H., & Schneider, A. L. (2006). Policy analysis for democracy. In M. Moran, M. Rein, & R. E. Goodin (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of public policy (pp. 169–189). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rochefort, D. A., & Cobb, R. W. (1994). Problem definition: An emerging perspective. In D. A. Rochefort & R. W. Cobb (Eds.), The politics of problem definition: Shaping the policy agenda (pp. 1–31). Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Schneider, A. L., & Ingram, H. M. (1997). Policy design for democracy. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Schneider, A. L., & Ingram, H. M. (Eds.). (2005). Deserving and entitled: Social constructions and public policy. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 12 April 2017.

Image: Indra Consulting, at, accessed 12 April 2017.