Challanges in Issue Framing

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Describing complex issues in a way that captures the interests of all the stakeholders concerned, yet can also form a sound and practicable basis for assessment, is inevitably difficult.

Difficulties arise both from the complexity and ambiguity of the issues that need to be assessed, and the multitude of stakeholders (often with different and conflicting interests) who are concerned. As a consequence, issue framing has to deal with several challenges:

  • how to identify all the stakeholders who might have interests in the issue and engage them in the process;
  • how to define the conditions (in the form of realistic yet relevant scenarios) under which the issue will be assessed;
  • how to set practicable limits to the issue without unfairly excluding some stakeholders’ interests and thereby biasing the assessment;
  • how to define and agree on a series of indicators that will adequately and fairly capture an describe the results of the assessment.

All four require that issue framing is done as a reiterative process, with each version of the issue being reviewed and debated to ensure that key elements or stakeholders have not been neglected. It also needs to be an open process, with additional stakeholders being invited to take part when new (and unrepresented) interests emerge.

This reiterative process of issue framing often involves a clear cycle, comprising:

  • a phase of ‘complexification’, as new factors and relationships are discovered, and new interests taken into account;
  • a phase of simplification, as the issue is paired down by eliminating redundant or irrelevant elements, in order to focus on what matters most.