What to expect
As you may have already experienced in your own work, without clear alignment on the problem you want to address with your policy, policies can miss opportunities, waste resources and end up changing something that isn’t aligned with the governments’ strategies. In complex systems – such as federal and local governments –
well-intended proposals may have unintended consequences.
For instance, imagine a decrease in patients accessing free health services. Are the patients unaware of these services? If the patients are aware of these services, is there not enough demand? Are there enough avenues to access these services? The decrease in patients could emerge from several root causes. If policymakers initiated actions without clear alignment on the problem, measures might be ineffective. For example, an entire campaign could be launched to educate the community about why using the services are important. Only after resource investment in the initiative, policymakers might realize that there may be other reasons for community members not accessing the services, such as infrequent public transportation services impeding access.
For policymakers, it is therefore essential to understand these root causes to develop effective policy proposals. How to get started
The first step in problem definition is to get clarity around the problem you are trying to solve. One method for this is to:
Formulate vaguely the problem you want to address. Prepare a list of questions that relate to the problem you want to define. These will be useful later in determining your information needs. Develop an overarching question and then refine it. By refining the question from a broad problem, you can clarify key terms and boundaries for the question, as well as set a clear goal and purpose. This question could be developed even further but serves as a good first step to identifying the policy you plan to address. Figure 1: Example of problem definition method applied to conflicts between herders & farmers | Adapted from Australian Public Service Commission
The Australian Public Service Commission provides a
tool to help policymakers refine their questions in order to be actionable and relevant.
This tool identifies aspects of a
successful overarching question: Articulates key terms and the problem the policy is trying to solve Contains an explanation of the purpose Conveys a measurable objective to work towards Articulates boundaries to manage scope Outlines how success will be determined Figure 2: A not clearly defined problem | Adapted Australian Public Service Commission Figure 3: An option for a more clearly defined problem | Adapted Australian Public Service Commission Keep the overarching question around as you continue the process of integrating data into policymaking, as the question will guide and focus your policy development and use of data. Moreover, as you work with other stakeholders, the question can evolve to reflect the policy problem more accurately. Get additional insights
While asking the right questions and framing the overarching question are a good starting point, it is crucial to underpin your understanding with
additional research and consultation. Desk research can be valuable and inform and guide the problem definition process. Check publications by relevant research institutions, other policymakers or non-governmental organizations such as development agencies to identify existing studies, reports and case studies on the specific matter.
Besides referring to existing work, it is also important to consult key stakeholders in the problem definition process, getting additional perspectives from experts, other policymakers end users and target groups. Scoping workshops are usually a good way to combine and align the view of the various stakeholders. The Design Thinking concept can be applied in such workshops to ensure a user-centric approach. VIDEO
Framing the problem
To transform the question into a plan for how to tackle the policy problem, first break down the problem into its interlinking pieces. Then, it is helpful to detail the information that would be needed to understand this problem and begin to analyse and interpret the data.
Creating a problem tree Developing a problem tree can enable a better understanding of the interlinking problems and allow for a streamlined identification of the information needs. A problem tree should start with the overall problem question you have already identified. Next, you can develop sub-questions by posing the question: ‘What do we need to know to be able to answer the larger question?’ Figure 4: Structure of problem tree | Australian Public Service Commission
Refining your problem treeTo refine your problem tree, identify as many relevant sub-questions as you can, considering interrelated sectors, questions of economics, questions of location, etc.
Once you have exhausted all relevant questions, for each branch of the problem tree, brainstorm your information needs to answer the questions. Referring to the sub-question from earlier: ‘What are the primary reasons for the conflicts between herders and farmers?’ not only qualitative insights from the target groups directly (from surveys), but also accompanying quantitative information on the evolution of population and cropland could be helpful.
Figure 5: problem tree for conflict between herders & farmers | UNDP
Once you have a list of your information needs,
divide the list into ‘required’ and‘nice-to-have’; this will help you to prioritize your collection of data. Finally, document all of these questions and your information needs, as these will help you to determine your next steps. How will I know I have successfully defined the problem?
Once you have a long list of questions and related information needs, it is good to reflect on this exercise and ask yourself a few key questions:
If your answer to these questions is yes, then you have successfully defined the problem.
Think beyond conventional ways to address your information needs
Following up on the earlier example of the conflicts between herders and farmers, one information need was to identify primary reasons for the ongoing conflicts. A common approach for policymakers to address this information need would be to reach out to local administrations or run surveys across the target groups to gather relevant data. While conventional sources of data continue to be essential for informed policymaking, it is important to think beyond established ways to address information needs.
social media postings or local online news articles could provide relevant insights for the question as well. Even satellite imagery, showing the evolution of cropland alongside population growth, could offer valuable data to better understand root causes for the conflicts between herders and farmers.
With the emergence of new digital technologies and advancements in data-driven innovation,
additional opportunities arise for policymakers to develop more inclusive, effective and sustainable policies Beyond conventional data types such as statistical records or census data, innovative data such as earth observation data, spatial data or sensor data can be utilized for the policymaking process.
This often also involves
data suppliers outside the common government institutions, including private companies, think tanks or civil society. Given these new possibilities, it is important to approach the policymaking process with an open mindset regarding types and sources of data right from the start. What comes next?
With a long list of information needs, awareness about new possibilities of emerging data sources and a clearly defined problem that you would like your policy to address, the
*. Mapping your data ecosystem can help you identify data producers, data users, their roles and how they interact with each other. next step is to map your data ecosystem *Note that the Data to Policy Navigator focuses on data related challenges and solutions and does not provide holistic guidance to cover all processes around defining the problem and information needs for policymaking.