Problem Definition and Agenda-Setting

Problem Definition and Agenda-Setting


Institutional Affiliation:

Policymaking is an integral part of the political process of any country. The government, through the legislature, is tasked with making policies based on the needs of the citizens and the country, and also based on the political agendas at play. Other bodies that contribute to the process of policymaking are lobby groups, nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, as well as other special groups. The first step towards making policy is the identification of a problem. Examples of problems or issues in the US today include healthcare, gun reforms, climate change, drug abuse, abortion rights, among many others. The process of identifying the relevant process is quite a challenging one, given hundreds of issues in society today. Problem definition and agenda setting are two crucial stages in policymaking, and they determine what policies will eventually be implemented.

Problem definition comes after the identification of a problem towards which a policy will be geared. For many, problem definition may seem to be quite an easy one. However, different groups of people define problems differently depending on factors such as political beliefs, religion, ethnicity, economic class, backgrounds, and many others. A person will define a problem mainly based on how it affects them. In policymaking, problem definition is a strategic step in the process of putting a particular issue in the spotlight (Barbehön & Lamping 2015). In defining a problem, the agent has to have some goals in mind. Examples of such goals are political leverage over their opponents, and getting the highest number of people on their side. Political elections are a perfect example of problem definition and the goals at play. One of the most heated debates is that surrounding the issue of illegal immigration, and different political parties define the problem differently depending on their target. Problem definition also entails crafting issues that are worth solving.

Agenda setting refers to the ability of a given entity to influence which problems and issues are on the public agenda (Birkland 2017). The media and politicians are some of the entities that determine which topics gain widespread attention. For an issue to gain agenda status, it must have widespread public support. The government, including the president has a significant role to play in agenda-setting. When an individual runs for office, they do so to gain the power to change or implement specific policies based on their interests and political beliefs. For example, the Obama administration set the healthcare agenda and proposed policy reforms in the Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as Obama Care. In the current political cycle, some of the items at the top of the agenda include gun control, healthcare, tax reforms, and student debt, among others. When putting an item on the agenda, the policymaker usually has a desired solution in mind, and they will lobby for their solution to get passed (Birkland 2017). Lobbyists and special interest groups are also part of the agenda-setting process.

Once problems have been identified, they have to be defined. Some of the factors that shape how a problem may be defined include ethnicity, economic status, class, religion, education, political interests, among others. Economic status applies in case of an issue like tax reforms. Most tax regimes in the world are progressive, meaning that taxation increases with income; however, in the United States, there is a lot of debate surrounding taxation. In the year 2017, President Trump introduced tax cuts that favored the corporations and the very wealthy. The definition of tax reforms will be influenced by the economic class to which a person belongs. A billionaire defines tax reforms differently from, say, a person who makes fifty thousand dollars per year. Ethnicity also matters, taking the example of police brutality that has mainly affected the African-American community. A Caucasian person will define police brutality differently from an African-American because they are affected differently by the issue.

One example of a problem that has been framed differently by different groups is the issue of illegal immigration. As the 2020 elections approach, politicians have been quite vocal in their policy plans known to the voters. The Republican and Democratic parties are the main rivals in the coming elections, and the two usually have opposing viewpoints. The Democratic Party aspirants define illegal immigration as a problem because of harsh and impractical immigration laws. According to the Democrats, the law is the root of the issue. Immigrants make a significant contribution to the country; hence, there should be provisions for illegal immigrants already in the country to gain legal status, as well as allow more immigrants into the country for the benefit of the country. The Republicans take an opposing view, defining illegal immigration as a major problem due to illegal immigrants taking up a lot of resources and burdening the country (Mangin & Zenou 2016). They propose radical steps such as mass deportation and stringent immigration laws to ease the burden of illegal immigration.

In conclusion, problem definition and agenda-setting are two essential steps in the process of policymaking. After a problem requiring a policy change has been identified, the agents then have the chance to define it based on their interests and target. They need to gain public support. Agenda-setting is the process by which the desired policy areas are highlighted to the public to garner attention. The government plays a significant role in setting the agenda based on its political views. When these two steps have been covered, the process can then move to the introduction of desired solutions, which are then voted upon by the legislature.


Barbehön, M., Münch, S., & Lamping, W. (2015). Problem definition and agenda-setting in critical perspective. In Handbook of Critical Policy Studies. Edward Elgar Publishing.Birkland, T. A. (2017). Agenda setting in public policy. In Handbook of public policy analysis (pp. 89-104). Routledge.Mangin, S., & Zenou, Y. (2016). Illegal migration and policy enforcement. Economics Letters, 148, 83-86.