Problem structuring in decision-making processes

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This contribution presents insights on problem structuring based on a literature review and experiences from a case study. Another deliberation tool aimed to involve stakeholders in a decision-making process is described in the Stakeholder analysis section.

Complex, unstructured problems

Water management issues are typical examples of complex problems. They are part of a natural and human system (Kolkman 2005[1]) which consist of many diverse, interdependent elements e.g. upstream events influence the water system downstream, different interdependent government layers manage the water system, and multiple stakeholders use the water system (see e.g. Geldof 2001[2]). If problems are part of a complex natural and social system, they are often unstructured. Complex, unstructured problems are characterized by: uncertain knowledge, disagreement about normative elements (e.g. values, norms or objectives) and disagreement about cognitive elements (e.g. research or information) (Van de Graaf and Hoppe 1996[3]; Hisschemöller and Hoppe 2001[4]). A problem results from an observed gap between a normative yardstick and an existing or expected situation. Problems are thus not objective givens, but social constructs (Dery 1984[5]; Van de Graaf and Hoppe 1996[3]). Actors may disagree about a problem because they behold divergent perceptions. A perception comprises the images actors have of their environment and the problems and opportunities within it. Objectives are concrete translations of perceptions and used to determine an actors’ strategy. Strategies are used to influence other parties or the content or process of problem formulation (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004[6]).

Policy processes and decision-making processes

A decision-making process is often embedded in a policy process and aims to solve a concrete problem. Currently, a shift is visible from a purely analytical approach to solve problems towards a process management approach. Characteristics of an analytical approach are a central steering actor who determines the objectives. This approach assumes that problems occur within a single-actor setting and that it is possible to solve a problem analytically. A process management approach recognizes the multi-actor setting of policy problems, the divergence of perceptions and the need for interaction and communication to solve these problems (Edelenbos et al. 2003[7]). Because for complex, unstructured problems a purely content-directed approach is not possible, a process-directed approach should be adopted (De Bruijn et al. 2002[8]). Criticism to the process management approach is that it neglects substantive aspects. Recent literature on process or network management pays explicit attention to the importance of interweaving process and content. Although a process management approach assumes that an objective problem formulation and knowledge does not exist, this does not imply that substance does not matter in this approach (De Bruijn et al. 2002[8]; Edelenbos et al. 2003 [7]; Koppenjan and Klijn 2004[6]).

The shift towards a more process-directed approach resulted in the development of empirical, descriptive models. These models aim to provide an alternative for the widely used phase-model. The phase-model describes policy processes as subsequent, interrelated phases with a clear beginning and end. Common phases of policy formation are problem formulation, generating alternative solutions, and policy design. Teisman (1992[9]) developed an alternative model, the rounds model. Actors are the focal point of analysis in the rounds model. Problems and solutions are only relevant to the policy process if they are presented by an actor. Policy formation does not stem from an intended course of action formulated by one actor, but results from a series of decisions taken by different actors in different rounds of interaction. Rounds of decision-making can only be determined in retrospective by determining the most crucial decisions. Decision-making rounds are characterized by dynamic combinations of sets of problems and solutions, represented by different actor. Thus, problem formulation always refers to a problem-solution combination (Teisman 2000[10]). The basic principles of the rounds model provide useful insights to understand problem structuring. The rounds model is also used as a basis to explain problem solving as a policy game in a network context (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004[6]) and to explain the function of knowledge in decision-making processes (Van Buuren 2006[11]).

Problem structuring

Hisschemöller (1993[12]) uses the term problem structuring in the context of policy processes to refer to an approach which focuses on the integration of the most divergent views with respect to the problem situation. Problem structuring prevents from addressing the wrong problem, because it is not solution oriented but oriented to problem finding. Instead of using the term problem structuring to develop a normative framework, we developed a conceptual model to describe problem formulation in the context of participatory policy processes. This conceptual model bases on insights about problem typologies, policy processes, process management and problem structuring.

If problems are unstructured, no clear problem formulation exists. Because different stakeholders behold different perceptions about the problem and knowledge is uncertain, interaction between stakeholders is necessary to formulate a joint problem and its solutions. Complex, unstructured problems are characterized by uncertainty and diverging perceptions. Uncertainty might result from a lack of knowledge, but also because different people interpret and value information differently (ambiguity) (Koppenjan and Klijn 2004[6]). Formulating a problem and its solutions implies that uncertainty, ambiguity and disagreement need to be reduced. The development of stakeholders’ perceptions and knowledge are central elements to create a joint problem formulation. Ideally, the outcome of problem structuring is ‘negotiated knowledge’, this is knowledge which is agreed upon and valid (De Bruijn et al. 2002[8]; Van de Riet 2003[13]). The content developed during a participatory process should not be seen as final or permanent. Adoption is the consolidation of a problem formulation over a longer period of several decision rounds (Teisman 2000[10]). Experiences from case study research indicate that the presented framework is very useful to analyze the development of substantive outcomes for participatory processes. Important lessons are that problem structuring is not a clear-cut process which takes place in a vacuum. Furthermore, it appears to be mainly useful to interactive policy-making processes which are open to all problem formulations and in which stakeholders (i.e. not the general public) are involved.


  1. Kolkman, M.J. (2005), Controversies in water management: frames and mental models. Febodruk BV, Enschede, The Netherlands
  2. Geldof, G. D. (2001). Omgaan met complexiteit bij integraal waterbeheer, PhD thesis, University of Twente, The Netherlands, Tauw bv, Deventer
  3. 3.0 3.1 Van de Graaf, H., and Hoppe, R. (1996). Beleid en politiek : een inleiding tot de beleidswetenschap en de beleidskunde Coutinho, Bussum
  4. Hisschemöller, M., and Hoppe, R. (2001). Coping with Intractable Controversies: The Case for Problem Structuring in Policy Design and Analysis. In: Knowledge, Power, and Participation in Environmental Policy Analysis, M. Hisschemöller, R. Hoppe, W. N. Dunn, and J. R. Ravetz, eds., Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London, 47-72
  5. Dery, D. (1984). Problem definition in policy analysis, Lawrence, Kansas : University Press of Kansas.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Koppenjan, J. F. M., and Klijn, E. (2004). Managing uncertainties in networks : a network approach to problem solving and decision making Routledge, London [etc.]
  7. 7.0 7.1 Edelenbos, J., Monnikhof, R., and Van de Riet, O. (2003). A Double Helix approach: a proposal to forge a better integration of analysis and policy development. International Journal of Technology Policy and Management, 3(1), 1-21
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 De Bruijn, H., Ten Heuvelhof, E. F., and In 't Veld, R. J. (2002). Process management: why project management fails in complex decision making processes, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht
  9. Teisman, G. R. (1992). Complexe besluitvorming: een pluricentrisch perspectief op besluitvorming over ruimtelijke investeringen, Rotterdam
  10. 10.0 10.1 Teisman, G. R. (2000). "Models For Research into Decision-Making Processes: On Phases, Streams and Decision-Making Rounds." Public administration : journal of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, 78(4), 937-956
  11. Van Buuren, M. W. (2006). Competente besluitvorming - Het management van meervoudige kennis in ruimtelijke ontwikkelingsprocessen, PhD-thesis
  12. Hisschemöller, M. J. (1993). De democratie van problemen : de relatie tussen de inhoud van beleidsproblemen en methoden van politieke besluitvorming, PhD thesis, Amsterdam: VU Uitgeverij
  13. Van de Riet, A. W. T. (2003). Policy analysis in multi-actor policy settings: navigating between negotiated nonsense and superfluous knowledge. PhD thesis, Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft: Eburon Publishers

See also

An example of problem structuring is described in the section with experiences of evaluation and case studies.

More information on the design of problem structuring processes and evaluation can be found in literature from M. Hisschemöller. A variety of problem structuring methods (PSM) have been analyzed and developed by J. Rosenhead.

The presented theory is used to analyze two case studies. For these case studies, see also: De Kruijf, J. (2007). Problem structuring in interactive decision-making processes: How interaction, problem perceptions and knowledge contribute to a joint formulation of a problem and its solutions, Master's thesis, University of Twente, Enschede. This report is also available as TNO-report, ref. nr 2007-I&R-065-KFJ-PEM.

For more information on interactive water management, see e.g. work from J.A. Van Ast.

The main author of this article is Joanne Vinke-De Kruijf
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Joanne Vinke-De Kruijf (2007): Problem structuring in decision-making processes. Available from [accessed on 24-10-2020]