Skip to content

Framing and Policy Making

How does framing help advance our public policy goals?

June 3, 2018

Policymaking is traditionally depicted as a process that unfolds in neat, predictable stages. First the issue is placed on the agenda and the problem is defined. Next, the legislative branches of government examine alternative solutions and write the right ones into law. The executive agencies implement the solutions. Interest groups may challenge the actions through the judicial branch. Sometimes, the policy is evaluated and revised or scrapped. At each stage, the theory goes, policymakers use evidence, data, and reason to guide their actions.

The reality of policymaking, of course, is much more complex. It involves what political scientist Deborah Stone has called “the struggle over ideas:

Ideas are a medium of exchange and a mode of influence even more powerful than money, votes and guns. Shared meanings motivate people to action and meld individual striving into collective action. Ideas are at the center of all political conflict. Policymaking, in turn, is a constant struggle over the criteria for classification; the boundaries of categories, and the definition of ideals that guide the way people behave.[i]

At each policy making stage, there are competing views about what the problem is, if and why it matters, how it works, and what should be done about it. 1

Issue framing – the process of shaping the interpretation of a social problem – elevates one view over another and drives policy in a particular direction.  If we consider how framing affects each stage of the policymaking process, we can better engage in the struggle over ideas.

Agenda Setting and Problem Definition

The first step in policymaking is to gain a place on the public policy agenda.[ii]  But how is the determination that a problem is now a “public issue” made?  Why do some problems get defined as public issues and others do not? Framing is at the heart of this process.

A condition becomes a social issue because people present information about it in a way that leads society to perceive the condition as important and worthy of attention. [iii] When activists organize a demonstration, when advocates brief lawmakers on their latest report, or when investigative reporters publish stories, they are casting a social condition as a social issue.[iv] If their claims persuade others that the topic rises to the level of a social issue, they have successfully framed the problem so that it gains agenda status. [v]

When our issue is at the agenda-setting stage, we need to adopt framing that transforms a social condition into a social issue. This requires careful choices. The use of tobacco, for example, can be constructed as a spiritual practice that must be respected, a public health threat that must be managed, a personal failing that comes with consequences, or an individual right that deserves protection. Our sense of the nature of the problem determines the policy solutions that appear natural or appropriate.

The framing that makes a condition an issue in the first place affects the policymaking that follows. To judge the relative merits of the different frames we could use, we need to ask not only how to gain attention, but how to define the problem in a way that leads to policies that advance equity and the common good.

Policy Formulation and Adoption

Once an issue is on the agenda, policies are then formulated and – ideally – adopted. This stage involves analyzing policy goals, creating  or identifying possible solutions, and weighing the alternatives. It also involves people: the elected officials, committee staffers, political appointees, or agency officials who decide on which options to pursue.

Because humans are involved, we can’t expect reason or logic alone to dictate the process; we have built-in tendencies to ignore data that doesn’t fit our worldview and dig our heels in when our beliefs are challenged.[vi] But we can anticipate how the framing of the issue will influence the policies that are considered and selected.

For example, research has shown that public health interventions are not always chosen based on their effectiveness, but because they align more closely with some social values than others.[vii] A personal responsibility frame guides people to see health information interventions as the most appropriate solution. From this perspective, the role of government is to provide information that allows people to consider options and make their own choice. A social justice frame that emphasizes social responsibility for conditions leads people to a different set of solutions. From this frame, the role of government is to regulate the environment so that everyone has an equal chance to be as healthy as possible, free from preventable health hazards where they live or work.

The connection between the frames we use and the policies we choose is not just a public health phenomenon—it happens on every social issue. When we frame housing in terms of affordability, policy options focus on individuals’ income levels and the debate becomes whether or not to supplement them with public funds. When we frame housing in terms of regional prosperity, higher-level interventions like planning, zoning, and community development come into view. The conversation then revolves around the ways that housing policy can create broader economic wellbeing.[viii] Framing old age as a period of decline and deterioration narrows our aging policy discussion to topics like income security and long-term care facilities. An alternative frame – talking about later life as a time when people have the benefit of insight and experience – helps us see the need for addressing age discrimination and pushing for more flexible employment policies.[ix]

In short, the frames that we use when formulating policy either give effective policies a chance to be seen, or keep them hidden from view.

Policy Implementation

In the third stage of policymaking, the chosen solutions are implemented by organizations charged with carrying them out. At this stage, administrators make decisions about how to deploy people, money, and other resources in order to translate a policy into action.

Framing also matters at this stage. This is the time when administrators are defining key terms and ideas from the policy – and making decisions about how those definitions will be put into action. It is a time of interpretation when we must guide the conversation in the right direction.

Consider the 1996 policy that overhauled welfare. The Clinton administration made a great effort to frame the goal as empowering economically marginalized people to establish a means of livelihood. The phrase “welfare-to-work” was coined. The values that were invoked included self-actualization and self-sufficiency. The administration emphasized structural issues in their problem definition, highlighting the ways that childcare and health care policy made it difficult for people to move from public assistance into family-sustaining employment.  This framing was highly effective at the policy adoption stage, but turned out to be insufficient for the implementation stage.

As the legislation was implemented, the role of framing became clear. Some states worked within the administration’s frame, emphasizing the transition from public assistance to jobs. These states built out robust workforce development programs, offered childcare support, and the like. Others chose to interpret the policy as simply a call to slash welfare rolls. The values evoked in these programs included personal responsibility, corporate autonomy, and fiscal restraint. The results trapped millions of Americans in poverty.

The lesson: because policymaking doesn’t stop when legislation is passed, our attention to framing can’t end at the signing ceremony, either. Just as the problem definition affects what solutions are considered and adopted, the definitions of solutions affect how policies play out.

Policy Evaluation

Policy evaluation is the final stage of the policymaking process. In this stage, policymakers assess what happened as a result of a policy and make adjustments as needed.

Just as there is no purely objective, fact-based mode for selecting one policy over another, there is also no entirely neutral way to measure and calculate the benefits or harms that policies create. Framing, which guides human interpretation and assessment, also comes into play in this seemingly “objective” phase.

The evaluation of a policy affects its implementation and legacy. Returning to the example of the Clinton-era welfare reform act, note that it was mostly evaluated by the number of welfare recipients who went to work. This incentivized states to push recipients into jobs, whether or not the wages were sufficient to sustain their needs. Imagine how the policy would have been implemented – and how later anti-poverty measures would have been crafted – if the reform had been evaluated by how much it reduced concentrated poverty, or how well it moved poor families into the middle class, or how many children completed college.

Such choices are influenced by our framing. To begin to evaluate a policy, evaluators must articulate the goals of the policy; a way to measure whether the goals have been met; and the outcomes that will be measured through those means. Decision-makers will base each of these choices on assumptions about who and what counts as important.[x] By highlighting different ways of viewing an issue, we shape people’s understanding of what counts as “success.”

Key Takeaways

On a day-to-day basis, our policy advocacy is made up of concrete, immediate tasks: testifying on the benefits of proposed legislation, meeting with a group to enlist their support for a policy position, crafting an argument to challenge an unjust policy or action in court. These discrete tasks, ideally, fit into a larger, longer-term strategy.

In the same way, the framing we choose for any one stage of the policymaking process should fit into a longer-term strategy that considers the full policymaking cycle. Our definition of the problem should set up the solutions we want to be considered. Our thoughtful campaign for adoption should be followed by an equally  thoughtful approach to shaping the narrative around implementation and evaluation. When we do this, we make the most of the power of communications – and use it to drive long-term, meaningful policy change.




[i] Stone, D. (2002). Policy paradox: The art of political decision making, New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

[ii] Clemons, R., & McBeth, M. (2001). Public policy praxis. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

[iii] Best, J. (ed.). (1995) Images of Issues. (2nd ed.) New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

[iv] Spector, M. and Kitsuse, J. (1977), Constructing social problems. Menlo Park: Cummings Publishing.

[v] Best, J. (ed.). (1995) Images of Issues. (2nd ed.) New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

[vi] Kahan, Dan M. “Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection: An experimental study.” Judgment and Decision Making 8 (2012): 407-24.

[vii] Guttman, N. (2000). Public health communication interventions: Values and ethical dilemmas. Sage Publications, 50.

[viii] O’Neil, Moira., and Sweetland, Julie. (2018). Piecing it together: A framing playbook for affordable housing advocates. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[ix] Sweetland, Julie, Moira O’Neil, and Andrew Volmert. (2017.) Finding the Frame for Aging: A FrameWorks Research Report. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[x] Stone, D. (2002). Policy paradox: The art of political decision making, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 65.