Framing the Problem

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

FramingTheProblemConcept description

This concept (effective practice) addresses techniques of framing the problem that constitutes the essence of a project or initiative.

In her course on Public Interest Writing, Catherine Smith (reference below) provides advice on framing a problem in the public policy context.

Framing to get a problem onto the public agenda

NOTE: The paragraphs in this section are direct excerpts, with minor formatting changes, from Smith’s course page:, accessed 6 March 2016.

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.

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, … 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.

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?
  • What plausible and realistic solution can you offer?

Catherine Smith, Framing the Problem – Purposes and Tasks for defining a policy problem, Public Interest Writing, East Carolina University, at, accessed 6 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Diagnosing (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 March 2016.

Image: LiteMind, at, accessed 6 March 2016.