This chapter provides a brief background about public policy in democratic political systems, and especially the central importance of how policy problems are ‘framed’ by various actors in policy debates. This background sets the scene for the main discussion (in Chapter 2) of the ‘wicked problems’ framework. It also provides a foundation for later analysis (in Chapter 3) of policy instruments for achieving policy goals and the institutional capacities required for successfully tackling complex problems.
Disagreements arise among stakeholders about the nature of policy problems and how to address them. These divergent viewpoints are shaped by different assumptions, values, and interests. These differences of perspective have major impacts on policy decision-making and implementation, because the way a problem is defined or interpreted tends to correlate with particular remedial actions to address the identified problem.
The fundamental proposition in this chapter is that divergent ‘framing’ of policy problems generates conflict about the nature of these problems and about how to address them. Competing policy perspectives and viewpoints are inevitable. These differences are often entrenched or resistant to change, owing to their complex anchoring in values, interests, emotions and ideological assumptions. Such perspectives about the nature of the issue, and about actions to be taken, are not derived from the ‘agreed facts’ about an issue – they are more likely to be influenced by a combination of ideological orientations, economic interests, political identities, professional or managerial assumptions, and past institutional legacies (Edelman, 1988; Majone, 1989; Head, 2010a; Cairney, 2016). The role of ‘evidence-informed’ analysis and expertise can be important, but is only part of the policy process (Head, 2016).
In democratic systems, public policy debates are focused on the ‘problems’ that stakeholders claim require greater public attention. Deborah Stone argues that an issue only becomes a public policy ‘problem’ when groups demand that action be taken; and when plausible stories are advanced concerning the causes and remedies for the problem (Stone, 1989, p. 299). The agenda-setting aspects of public policy debates are essentially arguments about the nature and urgency of policy problems and how to address them. Scoping the problems, proposing feasible solutions, and mobilising support for priority actions, are three important and closely related dimensions of the policy development process (Crowley et al., 2020; Kingdon, 1995; Majone, 1989). In every jurisdiction, diverse political actors, stakeholders and advocates are continually striving to place their key issues on the policy agenda for further debate and thus the consideration of decision-makers. The types of problems that attract public attention shift over time, depending on changes in leadership, changes in socio-economic conditions, changes in communication technologies, and changes in the design of policy programs and service systems.
The modern policy analysis literature—whether in health, education, criminology or environment—emphasises the importance of problem definitions or perceptions in influencing how policy debates unfold. ‘Framing’ here refers to how an issue or problem is defined and presented to wider audiences, as part of the process of setting policy agendas and priorities. Problem framing is about how actors attempt to persuade other citizens and decision-makers about the nature and significance of issues under discussion (van Hulst & Yanow, 2016). It is clear that very different stories tend to emerge about the causes and severity of the problems (and therefore the preferred actions to tackle the problems). ‘Framing’ is about how actors’ understandings of problems, contexts and responses are articulated, represented through narratives, and further shaped through interaction (Fischer, 2003, p. 144). Schön and Rein consider framing ‘a way of selecting, organising, interpreting and making sense of a complex reality to provide guideposts for knowing, analysing, persuading and acting’ (Schön & Rein, 1994, p. 146). Framing is also central for articulating the core values and identities that underlie social movements seeking policy change—for example, those advocating for substantive civil rights and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, religion or ethnicity (Benford & Snow, 2000). Under modern conditions in a democratic society with diverse media channels and technologies available to citizens, the fragmentation of media framings may generate ‘preference-based reinforcement’ (or group-think) among each of these media audiences (Cacciatore et al., 2016) rather than generalised impacts across the mass population.
Rittel and Webber argued that problem framing had become more difficult under modern conditions of social pluralism and political communication.
By now we are all beginning to realize that one of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be. (Rittel & Webber 1973, p. 159)
The dynamics of problem framing are important for many reasons, including the close connection generally found between how a problem is defined (or ‘structured’) by stakeholders and the preferred solutions they propose (Dery, 1984; Gusfield, 1989). Peters demonstrates that specific policy ‘problems’ (such as environmental pollution) emerge under specific political conditions and institutional contexts (Peters, 2005). He shows how the problems are interpreted by various actors in the light of issue histories, the balance of key participants, and their dominant ideologies and interests. The way a problem is framed by stakeholders and decision-makers is strongly correlated with their preferences for specific policy tools (e.g. market-based instruments vs state regulation).
Thus, the way problems are interpreted is closely tied to proposed solutions recommended by various government agencies, business groups and community stakeholders. To take an everyday example, poverty and economic inequality are widely seen as conditions of life in most countries. However, despite apparent agreement that poverty is a ‘real’ and ongoing problem, there are very different underlying narratives about the causes of poverty, the degree of urgency, and the proposed solutions. If poverty is seen as an individual-centred problem (generated by deficits in personal skills and motivation), the proposed solutions will be oriented towards encouraging individuals to take more responsibility for their unfortunate situation and challenging them to develop their work skills and their ‘achievement orientation’. However, if poverty is seen as an enduring structural feature of society (generated by impersonal market forces which primarily benefit wealthy elites), the solutions proposed might be oriented towards political action to improve employment security and the public funding of social services. In the same way, people enmeshed in long-term unemployment can be seen either as unwilling to grasp opportunities to develop new skills, or alternatively can be seen as the unfortunate victims of structural and technological change.
Debates about the nature and causes of problems provide the foundations for considering policy solutions and governance arrangements. Bacchi argues that the assumptions underlying policy arguments need to be carefully scrutinised. Policy dynamics can best be understood by ‘problematising’ the assumptions, interests and values underlying each viewpoint, and by identifying the likely impacts of adopting one position rather than another (Bacchi, 2009). Her critical analysis of social policy fields reveals some of the hidden interests and value assumptions embedded in mainstream social policy programs, including youth welfare, drugs policy, immigration, education and equal opportunity.
According to the policy analysis literature, policy debates always include key moments when the nature and scope of problems are intensely disputed and redefined (Dery, 1984). The contest over problem definitions and priorities evolves over time, constituting the contemporary public policy agenda. This agenda-setting process is crucial, because it shapes the selection of issues deemed worthy of attention, the manner in which they are considered, the nature of solutions regarded as feasible and supportable, and ultimately the pattern of winners and losers in various policy fields (Kingdon, 1995; Stone, 2012). Agenda-setting involves the exercise of power and influence, conducted through a contest of ideas and interests. For example, in responding to crises and emergencies, political leaders seek to influence how the media portray the nature of the challenges and how the proposed solutions are publicly defined, in order to avoid blame and to mobilise coalitions of support for particular policy outcomes (Boin et al., 2009).
In filtering out some proposed courses of action and favouring others, framing contests have real impacts on the policy process. A classic example of why problem-framing matters is to consider how the phrase ‘sustainable development’—originally a policy framework critical of the status quo—became a mainstream goal endorsed across a wide spectrum. Nevertheless, goals and methods of ‘sustainable development’ have become interpreted in radically different ways by corporate interests (who promote business profitability and continuous economic growth) and by ecological activists (who regard protection of natural assets as paramount). Thus the policy debate over how to interpret ‘sustainable development’ has been bitterly polarised between pro-growth advocates and those seeking to protect environmental values (Dovers & Hussey, 2013; Schandl & Walker, 2017).
Framing of policy problems and solutions occurs in specific contexts, necessarily linked to policy histories and the local array of political and economic stakeholders. For example, the problem of ‘gun violence’ has been handled in very different ways internationally. Policy diversity regarding gun control has been evident, even within the OECD group of liberal democracies. In a study of three federal countries—the USA, Canada and Australia—Newman and Head (2017b) showed how political and ideological factors led to very different outcomes. In the USA, a coalition of economic and political stakeholders have entrenched a permissive ‘gun culture’ that allows widespread civil access to weapons. This permissive outcome has been facilitated by an expansive reading of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, and buttressed through intensive political lobbying by the financially powerful firearms industry. Canada and Australia have been different, despite having had strong rural lobbies advocating for the rights of hunters and sporting shooters. Regulatory controls have been more acceptable in those two countries, and in the case of Australia those controls were significantly tightened through a concerted political and legislative response to mass shootings in 1998. The Australian regulatory approach was recently influential in New Zealand, which suffered a mass shooting in a mosque in 2019 (Every-Palmer et al., 2020). Response to a tragedy can generate diverse policy pathways, dependent on the interplay between actors in various political and institutional contexts and their contest of ideas (Béland & Cox, 2011).