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date: 23 March 2017

Policy Problems

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

We frequently employ analogies such as a leaking roof or finishing last in a ranking to illustrate that there is a serious problem requiring attention. Unfortunately, policy realities are far more complex and less obvious, since policymakers do not benefit from objective measures or clear signals akin to having water dripping over their heads to indicate the presence of a problem. In fact, they face a plethora of policy actors constantly engaged in defining policy problems for them, based on competing frames of references.

The term “policy problems” evokes questions, not only of what makes a social issue a policy problem, but also, if problems can actually be solved via a public response and how. Policy problems occupy a crucial role in policy studies, if only for the simple reason that political authorities are unlikely to alter or create policies without the presence of problems. This essay aims to review current debates surrounding the concept of policy problems. To facilitate this undertaking, it features an analytical division between two sets of complementary literature on policymaking and policy design. The first two sections engage with the policy process. First, it studies the place of policy problems in five popular theoretical frameworks (punctuated equilibrium, policy feedback, social construction, multiple streams, and learning from abroad). The concept of policy problems takes on different characteristics in each of these five theories, but also plays different roles on the path to policy change. In the second section, this essay focuses on how policy problems emerge onto the public agenda following the dimensions identified by Rochefort and Cobb. This step is crucial within the policymaking process since, as Dunn puts it, “policy analysts fail more often because they formulate the wrong problem than because they choose the wrong solution.” This involves an analysis of the literature on problem definition and its multiple dimensions.

Embedded within the policy design literature, the last two sections focus on the necessary ingredients to prepare a potential solution to policy problems. The third section explores core characteristics of policy problems and examines how these characteristics can influence responses to policy problems. It features fundamental questions, such as: can the problem be resolved; and what instruments are best suited to address an issue? Finally, the last section studies the re-emergence of “wicked problems” to describe and explain the complexities faced by policy makers in a wide range of policy areas. This essay revisits the original contribution of Rittel and Weber and raises questions concerning its usage in recent research.

To clarify many of the arguments found each of the four sections, examples drawn from the ongoing scholarly and societal debates on the consequences of population aging provide the primary source of inspiration. Beyond making it easier for the writer to navigate within his own specialty, this decision has the advantage of facilitating clear comparisons to illuminate the various subtleties found within the literature.