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Problem Definition

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Problem Definition 

Problem definition is the act of identifying a problem or issue as well as some of the causal factors behind it.

Douglas Torgerson.  2005. "Environmental Politics and Policy Professionalism: Agenda Setting, Problem Definition, and Epistemology" in R. Paehlke and Torgerson, eds. Managing Leviathan 2nd ed. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 171.; Pal, 2006, p. 36 


Defining a policy problem has to do with the particular way in which attention is focused, that is, with the perspective that frames a problem and this sets the range of solutions that can be imagined or legitimately entertained.

John W. Kingdon (1995) argues that how problems are defined or framed and put on “the agenda” is has a significant effect on policy success. Kingdon identifies three processes that contribute to agenda setting – problem recognition, policy proposals and political events - as serving as either impetus or constraint to moving policy items forward (Kingdon, 1995, pg. 18). Both Kingdon and Leslie Pal in Beyond Policy Analysis discuss the significance of “focusing events” in grabbing public and government attention and stimulating debate and discussion around specific policy areas (Pal, 103). Although these events may be indicative that there are underlying problems they do not define the issues by themselves. The author stresses that they need to be reflected upon and interpreted in order for coherent policy to be made.

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School of Public Policy and Governance