Do we always need a Policy Issue in order to identify a Policy Problem?

The smart, energetic, mid career professionals who are learning how to do policy analysis with me this summer have only heightened my awareness of the extraordinary difficulty of identifying a POLICY PROBLEM unless there is a larger POLICY ISSUE in which it is nested.

To give just one example that has arisen in class, most U.S. universities are faced with a reduction in the number of international students — perhaps the “Trump” factor, but there is also cost (strong dollar) or the deep investments in higher education being made in other countries. The POLICY ISSUE facing all colleges and universities to one degree or another — the need to adjust enrollment management policies. But within this general policy issue (which is life or death in smaller institutions, and more than a petty problem in large ones like mine) lurk a bunch of particular POLICY PROBLEMS. For example, multiple institutions report particular problems with students from the Middle East, who believe that they are being culturally devalued (safe and welcoming campus is a nice phrase, but it requires a lot of expansion to be meaningful), which affects both retention and recruitment. Or academic honesty policies that do not take into account that U.S. high school students learn about using quotes and citations, but this is not part of the curriculum or even the way of thinking in all countries. So how can institutions design student conduct policies that are sensitive to the myriad cultural differences and are, therefore “just” as well as “fair”. And yes, although we can look at this and know that it screams “culture conflict” — culture changes very slowly and policy provides an imperfect guide to the general direction in which we need to go….

Which comes first — the Issue or the Problem? And where do the “problems of practice” fit in?

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