How to frame your policy problem

Farmers’ knowledge + scientific knowledge + biodiversity = sustainable food systems

An expert workshop held at Bioversity International's headquarters in Rome earlier this month shares some tips on how to frame your policy problem and capture the right attention with that first sentence.

“The first sentence of your policy document is the most important sentence because it defines the debate,” shares Travis Reynolds, a policy analysis expert from Colby College who was one of the leaders of a Policy Analysis for Agricultural Development workshop held earlier this month at Bioversity International in Rome, Italy.


Many researchers and development practitioners struggle with communicating the right information to the right policymakers on the issues they care about. Which arguments can convince a policy maker? How can policymakers (and their constituents) be influenced by scientific, economic, or moral arguments to make policy decisions in line with your goals?


A plethora of tools can be used to define and defend your preferred policy recommendations, but to begin with, Reynolds introduced us to the craft of defining your policy problem. Five things came through as the most important points you need to communicate with that very first sentence of your policy document.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What is the cause of this problem? (if there are multiple causes, focus on the one you want to highlight)
  3. Who are the relevant stakeholders?
  4. What policy goals are the most important? 
  5. What policy tools are available to achieve these goals? e.g. bans, rules, subsidies, taxes, further study etc.

Policymakers are busy people, often with conflicting recommendations coming from various sources. The ability to grab their attention from the get-go is a vital asset. “By framing the debate from that first sentence, you are shaping the problem,” explains Reynolds. By defining the boundaries of the policy problem, you are essentially eliminating a whole range of other potential policy interventions that could be on the discussion table.

To give an example: 

Climate change could reduce the yields of all major crops by an average of 8% in Africa and South Asia by 2050, threatening the food security and livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers. 

Cause. Effect. Evidence. Stakeholders. This is a tangible problem, with a tangible cause and a clearly stated set of stakeholders. In just one sentence, any other effects of climate change have been eliminated from the discussion, and any other potential stakeholders, such as global export markets or food entrepreneurs, have also been excluded. The sentence is to the point and allows the policymaker to know what is coming next.


That is, how do we deal with this problem? What are the possible interventions that you want the policymaker to consider? Are you suggesting more investment in high-yielding drought-resistant crop varieties? Or are you suggesting to strengthen farmer seed networks so that they have better access to a diversity of seeds? Policy analysis gives you the tools to assess different policy options through economic efficiency (how much does each policy cost? What are the different benefits?), while also recognizing that the preferred policy option may also be based on criteria that override purely economic considerations. 


A policy analyst needs to consider equity, sustainability, security and viability in combination with efficiency criteria, presenting this wisely to policymakers as the basis of a convincing policy recommendation. 


Why is your policy problem so important in the first place? Because it forms the basis of the scientific research or policy analysis that follows. “As a policy analyst, you can reject a problem given to you if it is not clearly defined,” explains Reynolds. Without a well-defined policy problem, any research, even evidence-based research, lacks credibility, and might even be time wasted if the research is not tackling the problem from the right angle.


So next time you are drafting a policy document, think about whether your policy problem is well defined:

  • Does it tell the story of your issue?
  • Doe it define who, what, when and how?
  • Does it define clear boundaries for analysis?
  • Does it provide evidence of causes, severity, scope, and urgency
  • Does it involve the right people?


Here are some examples from the workshop to get you thinking:

  • In Burkina Faso and Mali, 80 - 90% of agricultural production relies on informal seed systems, however current seed laws and regulations do not allow registration and commercialization of seeds from the informal sector, which has a negative impact on smallholder farmers’ livelihoods.
  • In Sri Lanka, farmers prefer local crop varieties due to lower costs and adaptation to local production systems. Consumers also prefer the taste of local varieties. However, a lack of appropriate variety testing, registration schemes and high imports of exotic seed varieties has led to a low availability of traditional variety seeds. Striking a balance between imported varieties and competitive local varieties is urgently needed to provide optimum choices for farmers and consumers in the country.
  • In Uzbekistan, cotton production is a national priority because of its high value on the international market. As a result, a huge diversity of crops such as temperate fruits and vegetables are neglected by public policy support, limiting farmers’ capacities to benefit from the cultivation of these crops, both in terms of food security and market opportunities.


The Policy Analysis for Agricultural Development workshop held in Bioversity International was led by C. Leigh Anderson from the University of Washington and Travis Reynolds from Colby College, organized by Bioversity International’s Policy group.