In the introductory post about Bardach’s work we discussed the overall context and content. In this post we will focus on the details of the first step of his guidelines. The other steps will be posted soon.
Step One: Define the problem
The most crucial step as it direct any further endeavours. Bardarch recommends to define problems quantitatively in terms of deficit and excess and specifically with a magnitude. Often magnitudes can only be estimated and it is worth providing point and range estimates (e.g. descriptive statistics with box plots). Magnitudes help to convey behavioral and concrete definitions. Since definitions of problems are by their own definition evaluative it is necessary to establish whether a problem is grave enough to concern the public. Bardach suggests that any form of market failure – i.e. a technical property of a good or a service malfunction – warrants an intervention but that on the contrary nearly no other kind of “problem” qualifies. Exceptions are
- Breakdown of non-market systems (e.g. family relationships)
- Low living standards for non-participants (voluntarily or involuntarily) of the market
- Any form of discrimination (racial, minorities, etc.)
- Government inability to deliver a service (public schooling, infrastructure, etc.)
Another issue with definitions is that they may also be diagnostic and in the worst case misleading if the diagnostic is mistaken. Causal claims of problem definitions need to be supported by evidence (see Step Two) or else they can easily fall victim to issue rhetoric.
Bardach recommends to be wary of issue rhetoric that is usually loaded with connotations (partisan, ideological or personal) and recommends a more sober language to find a problem that is analytically manageable. Issue rhetoric also often enforces selective perception and allow parties (to the problem) to define their position as “correct”. At best issue rhetoric can used as the raw material for a first provisional problem definition.
Similarly, some words are connoted with a multitude of issues and therefore it may be necessary to provide a primary focus or exclude certain issues from the definition.
A special expression “The odds” should be used with care as it conveys vagueness and may under- or overstate an issue. It can be used to cover the uncertainty of the author about a specific event and it should be read this way in any policy analysis.
Policy analysis is mainly used to address existing grievances. However, there is a case to improve non-aggravated situations (against the modus operandi “if if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). Bardach identifies five fields that can often yield improvements:
- Operations research strategies allow to optimise the use of resources and improve productivity.
- Cost-based pricing can reduce inequality by allowing for lower prices during off-peak hours and hand-off the price of peak-consumption to the actual users.
- By-products of personal aspiration can be incentivised such that personal advantage coincides with social advantage (e.g. give a percentage of the cost reduction as a wage increase to the inventing employee).
- Complementarity offers opportunities to join activities that have symbiotic effects.
- Input Substitution can reduce costs by replacing over-qualified employees with well-qualified employees (e.g. civial clerk for police administration instead of trained officer).
- Development support can provide opportunities to improve situation before they get out of hand (e.g. unemployment training before searching for a new job).
- Exchange-oriented policies can facilitate the flow of services by mimicking markets (e.g. Obamacare and the online-market place for insurances),
- Multiple Functions can be assumed by a single policy allowing to use synergies.
- Nontraditional participants can give a new perspective on problems and allow for previously unknown changes for improvement.
- Underutilized capacity can be put to use to reduce cost elsewhere (e.g. school buildings in the evening) but must be offered with caution in order to not endanger emergency capacities or baseline capacities.
The solution in the problem
A problem definition should not entail a solution and should be merely descriptive. Hidden solutions can be hard to see as exemplified by the problem definition “there are to little homeless shelters for families” compared to “too many families are homeless” where the first variation implicitly assumes that shelters are a solution the second options allows the exploration of stopping families from getting homeless in the first place.
As good definitions are hard to come by an iterative process to come up with a definitions is the recommended course of action according to Bardach. The iterative process should also increase the empirical and analytical understanding of the issue at hand.