Identifying & framing the issue

Framing is a way of structuring or presenting a problem or an issue. This is an important consideration in designing a CE process because it will influence who you include in the process, how the participants view the issue, the scope of the discussion, and what range of potential “solutions” are considered.

To frame an issue, you should begin by asking these questions: 

What is the issue?

An issue could be framed broadly as “common ground” that allows it to be considered from many angles; or, it could be framed as a “single angle”, focussing on one particular dimension of the issue. 
Framing as common ground: This may be useful when dealing with a large group trying to establish a common basis for working together. For example, harm reduction and abstinence are two strategies for dealing with addictions. A common ground approach would portray the problem broadly as “addictions”, as contrasted with a single factor such as “lack of harm reduction programs”.

View one: Abstinence is the only acceptable approach to dealing with addictions.
View two: Harm reduction is a valid approach to addictions for some groups.
Common ground: Addictions is the higher issue. A variety of strategies may work for different populations. Keeping the issue at a broad level – addictions – can help the group to establish common ground.

Framing as a single angle: This approach may be useful when working with a smaller, more specific group of people who want to focus on a particular issue or strategy. A single angle can have an impact on several broader issues.

View one: Disruptive behaviour of street-involved population consuming large quantities of alcohol is a problem is our community.
View two: Alcohol addiction is having a huge negative health impact on the hard-core street population.
Single angle: Harm-reduction programs based on supplying a controlled quantity of alcohol to the street-involved population can reduce negative health effects and disruptive behaviour.

Who is involved?

Typically, stakeholders might consist of targets of change (those affected by the issue, or whose actions might contribute to the problem or solution), and agents of change (those who could contribute to or support a solution).

In the issue of alcohol addiction among the street-involved population, the targets of change would include the street-involved individuals themselves, as well as the agencies that work directly with these groups such as homeless shelters. The agents of change could include: organizations providing health services to this population (e.g. community health centres, hospital ERs), as well as police, local businesses, and neighbours who are affected by – or dealing with – the behaviours. 

What contributes to the problem?

Framing helps communicate information about what contributes to a problem, and whether a broad or narrow perspective is being considered.

Some of the risk factors in the example of alcohol abuse among the street-involved population would include: accessibility to legal and illegal sources of alcohol in the neighbourhood, the availability of safe places for this population to spend time during the day, and alternative activities. Another issue is whether alcohol addiction is considered to be a medical issue that should be treated, or a moral one. 

What contributes to the solution?

The previous questions will assist in identification of potential solutions to the problem. Framing the issue with potential solutions can help to focus the discussion. Possible solutions may include:  

  • Education and skill building.
  • Promoting access (or reducing it).
  • Providing incentives and disincentives.
  • Arranging opportunities and resources.
  • Influencing public policy.  
The choice of strategy will depend on the values of those doing the choosing. Health organizations may be more inclined to explore strategies based on harm reduction and treatment. Frustrated businesses and community groups are often most interested in seeing an end to the disruptive behaviour in their neighbourhood. The street-involved population often has very definite ideas about the kinds of programs in which they will be willing to participate.

Framing an issue is a deliberate decision by the group or organization that initiates the process. When used appropriately, framing can help to set up a discussion that generates a more complete understanding of a problem, and helps stakeholders to come together to support a solution.

A complete discussion of these questions can be found in the “Reframing the Debate” section of the Community Toolbox from Kansas University.

Go to related resources »