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Paving the Way: an online discussion on defining the policy problem

By Andrea Bodkin, HC Link Coordinator

This blog post is part of a series on the topic of developing health public policy written by HC Link and our partner organizations. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


This afternoon, Kim Bergeron (Health Promotion Consultant with Health Promotion Capacity Building Services at Public Health Ontario) and I were joined by 22 people to talk policy. Kim and I normally get pretty excited about the topic of policy, and we enjoyed having others to share our enthusiasm with. The purpose of the online discussion was to explore three concepts in defining the policy problem that we will be diving into more deeply over the course of the year.


The topic of the online discussion was on defining the policy problem. This is a tricky step in policy development, where often times we jump to policy solutions (or are given policy solutions by our agency/funder) rather than taking the time to explore the nature of the problem that the policy is intended to solve. It’s important to take the time to define the nature of the problem so that a) you can articulate it b) you can get the support that you need from community and stakeholders and c) you can select the policy option that best solves the problem.


Kim began by introducing the concept of determining the type of problem we have on our hands:

  1. Tame problems: are those where stakeholders agree on the nature of the problem and on the best way to solve it;

  2. Complex problems: are those where stakeholders agree on the nature of the problem, but not on how to best solve it; and

  3. Wicked problems: stakeholders agree neither on the nature of the problem, nor on its solution. They are not evil, but are those problems that are considered highly resistant to resolve. The first action to define the problem is to recognize what type of problem it is.


We then had a conversation about wicked problems, using the example of safe injection sites. We discussed that values, personal bias, political opinion and ideology often affect how people see the problem and solutions. The public and various stakeholders often disagree about the precise nature of the problem, and whether it is a downstream, mid-stream or upstream one. We discussed the importance of developing a shared understanding amongst your stakeholders, engaging them in the conversation, on the nature of the problem and the possible policy solutions to it. We identified techniques and shared resources on how to develop that shared understanding, including:

  • Dialogue mapping

  • Collective Impact: a recent blog post from Tamarack discusses the tensions in light of a “wicked problem” in Collective Impact

  • Deliberative dialogue: the National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy has a collection of resources on Deliberative Processes

  • Finding areas of agreement and building relationships from there

  • Policy narratives: an article by Steven Ney and Marco Verweij discusses “Messy Institutions for Wicked Problems: how to Generate Clumsy Solutions”


Once you have identified the type of problem to be addressed and have developed a shared, collective understanding of the problem, there is a need to identify ways to communicate this information to others to build support and/or increase awareness. We discussed communication vehicles that we have used to communicate a shared understanding of a problem:


Kim and I are looking forward to diving into this subject more deeply at our peer sharing session on April 21. During this session, we’ll hear from 3 or 4 people about their experiences in defining the policy problem, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk more about our experiences, challenges and solutions. Registration for the peer sharing session is limited to 20 people to ensure that we can have a deep conversation. Register soon!

 

 

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