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Politics of problem definition

By Hugo Barreca
07 October 2015   |   2:20 am
In a previous article, we reviewed Kingdon’s theories about the multiple-stream policy process. His theories revolve around the idea that some projects are pushed to success when three “streams” converge – the problem stream, the political stream, and the policy stream.
Hugo Barreca, Esq. (New York) President of National Standard Finance, LLC

Hugo Barreca, Esq. (New York)<br />President of National Standard<br />Finance, LLC

In a previous article, we reviewed Kingdon’s theories about the multiple-stream policy process. His theories revolve around the idea that some projects are pushed to success when three “streams” converge – the problem stream, the political stream, and the policy stream. Once a problem is identified, if a policy exists that is presented as a solution, and if the political will to apply the policy exists, this convergence creates a “policy window” where policy entrepreneurs can advance their programs to completion. If an entrepreneur misses this window, it may take years or decades for a similar opportunity to become available.

The question then must be asked: how does an issue become recognized as a “problem” in the first place? Political theorist Schattscheider wrote: “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” A handbook on how to attain the political power and public support necessary to advance certain issues to success would include a deep examination of how issues can be defined by political players, the media, interest groups and the public at large. The definition ascribed to an item can be suggested or imposed by a proponent, can be recast by opponents, and can be associated with other, often pre-existing ideas that can influence the perception of the issue.

For example, there are many different ideas concerning the production and distribution of electrical power. National Standard has met with the energy ministers and financial ministers of several African countries that count power as a critically important issue. Some ministers are concerned with the ability to use domestic natural resources to generate power within their own country. The “problem” that needs to be solved is primarily an economic one – how to produce enough power so that large infrastructure projects themselves can run. Schools, hospitals, sports stadiums, housing projects, all need power. In addition, energy is needed to build those projects in the first place. The “problem” is that deficiency of power is seen as an obstacle to further economic development. Therefore the “solution” is to generate more power, and to advance policies and politics that are business-oriented and economically advanced. All other issues become secondary if the problem is seen in economic terms.

Other ministers we have met with see power generation in economic terms but also in ecological terms. They place power generation in a system of problems related to the overall health of the country – its people and its environment. They cite past practices in the extraction of energy resources that have damaged the environment. The economics they reference are about potential cost associated with poor extraction methods that can cause damage to the land and water resources that can last for many years, even many generations. These ministers also need power, but reference the burdens of ecological damage and poor health as the “problem” that needs to be solved.
The attempt to define the problem in a way that advances your agenda is called “problem ownership.” Usually ownership of a problem is accompanied by association with certain interest groups, government authorities, or having special knowledge, expertise or experience in certain areas. Problem ownership involves explanation of causes, description of possible outcomes, and, most importantly, an attempt to persuade others to adopt your point of view.

Techniques used in persuasion often make distinctions between “impersonal causes” on one hand, and specific responsibility or culpability about a problem on the other. For example, one group might say that falling oil prices are a worldwide phenomenon, due to international politics in the Middle East or in Russia, or an imbalance between supply and demand in distant lands such as China – in other words, no one’s fault, just the result of general economics. The solution is to just bear this period of falling prices as best you can, or to adjust bank interest rates. Another group might say that although that might be true, the real “problem” is that not enough long-term investment has been made in oil refinery and processing infrastructure, which would allow a country to withstand fluctuations in worldwide oil prices more effectively. That group’s proposed solutions might involve sustained economic development in infrastructure despite falling revenues. At National Standard we always think that infrastructure development – done correctly – brings a long-term return on investment and deferment of development usually means that projects just cost more in the future and become more urgent as their need becomes more apparent.

Another common technique used in problem definition involves what is called the “generality” of the issue. The more general an issue, the more people it will seem to affect, and therefore garner more support – or possibly, more opposition! For example, one group might argue that use of pesticides and fertilizers “improve agricultural productivity.” Everyone wants to have improved agricultural productivity – why not? Another group, however, might emphasize that introducing pesticides into the soil and water supply is terrible heath risk. No one wants a health risk. By associating pesticide use with “big picture” issues, people who might not be interested in an issue related to farming now become champions of one side or other.
While there is no circumventing the political and economic realities of the existing situation, the point here is to note is that the “positions” adopted by different proponents often emphasize one particular aspect of a problem, and consider the other aspects as secondary. No problem or solution exists in a vacuum.

Choosing to associate these issues with pre-formed contextual belief systems makes decision-making less complicated. If someone’s already thought a problem through to their own satisfaction, and a new item is just thrown into the set of similar items, there is a solution set already available for use.

When we at National Standard meet with representatives concerned with infrastructure development, we often see these issues at the center of the decision making process. A good awareness of the issues involved in problem definition can help define the parameters more clearly and lead to the best possible outcomes.

Hugo Barreca is President of National Standard Finance, LLC and is based in New York City. Mr. Barreca may be reached by email at For more information about National Standard Finance, LLC please visit