4.1.1 Pre-modelling: Problem Definition

This chapter focuses on the definition and the issues of the problem definition process, then describes the content of the process and provides guiding principles and references for scientists
Icône de l'outil pédagogique Authors

Jean-Paul Bousset, Marie Taverne, Etienne Josien, Olivier Thérond


Icône de l'outil pédagogique Definition

In the SEAMLESS-IF impact assessment procedure, problem definition is part of the pre-modelling phase – so called “project definition” in the SEAMLESS-IF, with scenario description and selection of indicators.

In the context of policy analysis, the notion of problem definition, or problem setting, has long been instituted as the most crucial and demanding task facing the analyst (Bardach, 1996). Lessons from public policy research suggest that problems do not exist ‘out there’, are not objectives entities in their own right, but are personal or social constructs (e.g. Wildavsky, 1979; Dery, 1984; Weiss, 1989; Dunn, 1994). A situation (such as the observing system) becomes a problem only when people perceive the situation as different from what they would like to be.

The way a person perceives a problem, referred to as his or her problem definition, has a major influence on how he or she believes the problem should (or should not) be addressed. Thus, problems are analytic constructs for scientists, while they are political constructs for policy makers. Policy makers express organizational interests, values and motivations, while analysts refer to policy goals, impact indicators, and constraints for the impact assessments as inputs to a political process. In other words, while for policy makers what is recognized or legitimized as the appropriate definition of a given problem is the product of the political process, the analyst engages in ‘search, creation and initial examination of opportunities for improvement’ (Dery, 1984). So, ‘selecting issues for active consideration’, which is the essence of agenda setting, is not enough. For example, ‘food safety’ is a suitable answer to the question: ‘Which issues are on the agenda?’, but such an answer does not reveal the slightest hint on how this issue is defined. Problem definition must also address questions concerning ‘the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen’ (Schön, 1994).


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