Policy Analysis

Review Question 6 and select one of the ill-structured problems taken from the journal Policy Analysis (now the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management Under the title “Department of Unintended Consequences”. Analyze the problem; then, provide an example on how classification analysis, hierarchy analysis, and synectics might be used to structure the problem you selected. Identify the problem you selected in your discussion with one of the following key phrases: (a) Egyptian agriculture, (b) ecologists and field mice, (c) San Francisco’s North Beach parking. 


Question 6

The ill-structured problems that follow are taken from illustrations published in the journal Policy Analysis (now the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management) under the title “Department of Unintended Consequences.”

For several thousand years, Egyptian agriculture depended on the fertilizing sediment deposited by the flood of the Nile. No longer, however. Due to expensive modern technology intended to improve the age-old lot of the peasant, Egypt’s fields must be artificially fertilized. John Gall, writing in the New York Times Magazine (December 26, 1976), reports that the Nile sediment is now deposited in the Aswan Dam’s Lake Nasser. Much of the dam’s electrical output is used to supply enormous amounts of electricity to new fertilizer plants made necessary by the construction of the dam.

University of Illinois ecologists can explain how certain harmful field mice spread from their native regions into areas where they had never before been found. They are using the new, limited-access, cross-country highways, which turn out to be easy escape routes with few barriers. Older highways and roads, as well as railroad rights-of-way, run into towns and villages every few miles and effectively deter mice migration. The Illinois group found that before interstate highways ran through central Illinois, one type of mouse was limited to a single county. But in six years of superhighways the four-inch-long creatures have spread sixty miles south through the center of the state. The ecologists are concerned lest the mice, a species that loves to chew on trees, become a threat in central and southern counties where apple orchards abound (Wall Street Journal, December 1, 1977).

Edward J. Moody … argues persuasively that worship of Satan has the effect of normalizing abnormal people. Thus, to “keep secret” from ordinary people their satanic power and existence, such persons are urged to behave as straight as possible. The effect, of course, is more effective social relations—the goal for which Satan’s name has been invoked in the first place! (P. E. Hammond, “Review of Religious Movements in Contemporary America,” Science, May 2, 1975, p. 442).

Residents of San Francisco’s North Beach areas must now pay $10 for the privilege of parking in their own neighborhood. A residential parking plan was recently implemented to prevent commuters from using the area as a daytime parking lot. But according to a story in the San Francisco Bay Guardian (March 14, 1978), the plan has in no way improved the residential parking situation. Numbers of commuters from outlying districts of the city have simply been changing their car registrations to North Beach addresses. A North Beach resident—now $10 poorer—still spends a lot of time driving around the block.

Choose one of these problems and write a short essay on how classification analysis, hierarchy analysis, and synectics might be used to structure this problem.




Differences in the Structure of Three Classes of Policy Problems

Structure of Problem


Well Structured

Moderately Structured

Ill Structured

Decision maker(s)










Utilities (values)
















Moderately structured problems are those involving a few decision makers and a relatively limited number of alternatives. Utilities (values) reflect manageable disagreements subject to bargaining and mutual adjustment. Nevertheless, the outcomes of alternatives are uncertain and estimable within margins of error. The prototype of the moderately structured problem is the policy simulation or game, for example, the “prisoner’s dilemma.”19 In this game, two prisoners are held in separate cells; each is interrogated by the prosecuting attorney, who must obtain a confession from one or both prisoners to obtain a conviction. The prosecutor, who has enough evidence to convict each prisoner of a lesser crime, tells each that if neither confesses, they will both be tried for a lesser crime carrying a punishment; of one year each if both confess to the more serious crime, they will both receive a reduced sentence; of five years each; but if only one confesses, he will receive probation, whereas the other will receive a maximum sentence of ten years. The “optimal” choice for each prisoner, given that neither can predict the outcome of the other’s decision, is to confess. Yet it is precisely this choice that will result in a five-year sentence for both prisoners, because both are likely to try to minimize their sentences. This example not only illustrates the difficulties of making decisions when outcomes are uncertain or unknown; the example also shows that otherwise “rational” individual choices may contribute to collective irrationality in small groups, government agencies, and corporations.


Ill-structured problems are those that involve many decision makers whose utilities (values) are either unknown or impossible to rank in a consistent fashion. Whereas well-structured and moderately structured problems reflect processes of consensus and bargaining, a major characteristic of ill-structured problems is conflict among competing goals. Policy alternatives and their outcomes may also be unknown or subject to risks that may be estimated through the use of subjective probabilities. The problem of choice is not to uncover known deterministic relations but rather to define the nature of the problem. The prototype of the ill-structured problem is the completely intransitive decision problem, that is, one for which it is impossible to select a single policy alternative that is preferred to all others. Whereas well-structured and moderately structured problems contain preference rankings that are transitive—that is, if alternative A1 is preferred to alternative A2, and alternative A2 is preferred to alternative A3, then alternative A1 is preferred to alternative A3—ill-structured problems have intransitive preference rankings.

Many of the most important policy problems are ill structured.20 For example, it is unrealistic to assume the existence of one or a few decision makers with consistent preferences, because public policies are sets of interrelated decisions made and influenced by many policy stakeholders over time. Consensus is rare, because policy making typically involves conflicts among competing groups. Finally, it is seldom possible to identify the full range of alternative solutions for problems, in part because of constraints on the acquisition of information, but also because it is difficult to bound a problem and know when a solution has been reached. In effect, there is no “stopping rule” to determine when problems have been correctly defined or solved.

The reasons why ill-structured problems are critical for public policy analysis have been ably summarized by a number of social scientists.21 The contrast between ill-structured and “tame” problems shows why understanding the nature ill-structured problems is critical to formulating problems, testing solutions, and determining whether we have formulated the “right” problem.22

Field of study: 
No answers yet