If only we knew…how to define problems and ask questions to engage meaningfully with citizens

“A good question is one that provides ideas, solutions and legitimacy”

While they are eager to engage with citizens, decision makers often fail to leverage the “surplus” of the crowd in designing policy solutions to social and economic problems. To engage meaningfully with and among citizens, the problem that needs to be solved must be defined well.

During the GovLab Experiment, a group of thinkers and doers from a variety of industries and sectors, led by British Columbia’s Executive Director of Citizen Engagement David Hume, worked toward creating an infrastructure and platform for asking the right questions.

Albert Einstein highlighted the importance of this challenge when he said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Learning how to ask the right questions is also the focus of a growing body of literature, including work in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and a report from InnoCentive on problem definition at NASA.

To help guide those asking questions and defining problems, the group developed a three-part system including: the Pre-Problem / Prioritization phase, the Problem Definition phase and the Post-Problem phase. To ensure optimal outcomes from citizen engagement projects, it is essential that institutions strategically develop and hone their questions at each of these stages.

Rod Glover [Australia]: Session 3 participant of the Experiment, explains the importance of capturing values and opinions when defining the problem…

Pre-Problem / Prioritization

The Pre-Problem / Prioritization phase is defined by information collection and values definition. In the interest of optimizing the allocation of institutional resources and bandwidth, this stage seeks to aggregate and prioritize the goals, concerns and opinions of the myriad of stakeholder voices in a given problem area. The first step in this prioritization process is collecting that input.

Means of collecting input:

  • Surveys
  • Evidence / Fact Collection
  • Political Party Priorities
  • Scan of public opinion and media coverage (see for instance http://wikicurve.smh.com.au/)
  • Citizen Engagement “Priority Tree”

Ultimately, this input should help develop a “strategy map” that defines the values at play and helps to determine what really matters to people regarding the given problem area.

Problem Definition

While the Pre-Problem phase is focused on defining priorities, the Problem Definition stage requires the definition of “The Who,” “The What” and “The How” of asking questions.

“The Who”

The legitimacy of a given citizen engagement project is inextricably tied to both the group to which the problem is directed and the group that defines the problem in the first place. To help develop an effective and transparent problem definition system, it is important to recognize and weigh not only the public legitimacy of each group considering the given problem, but also their potential goals, biases and blind spots.

 Defining “The Who”

  • Who formulates the question?
    • Politicians?
    • Experts?
    • Citizens?
    • Third Parties / Independent Commissions?
  • Who gets consulted?
    • Experts group vs. different constituencies or segments of the public
    • Public vs. expert sourcing

“The What”

Defining “The What” is likely the most complex and granular aspect of problem definition. By providing a detailed framework for the problem, institutions can help to ensure that citizens provide meaningful, actionable submissions. Participants in the GovLab session developed a list of principles to help guide institutions in defining “The What.”

The 8 Principles of Problem Definition

  1. Define the framing and boundaries of the system
  2. Define the terms
  3. Be unambiguous in steps 1 and 2, framing the problem with as little language as possible
  4. Discover the objective (through any number of means, including a top-down or bottom-up system)
  5. Define the constraints
  6. Facilitate/Democratize Access, ensuring that engagement works across multiple platforms and that platforms match the access capabilities of the core constituencies
  7. Develop rewards and recognition systems, including trust verification systems that show institutions are listening
  8. Creating measurable outcomes

 “The How”

 After determining the group formulating the question, the group to be consulted and the detailed structure of the question itself, institutions need to decide on the type of platform or channel used to engage citizens. Two of the major decisions regarding “The How” are:

  • Whether to use online or in-person platforms
  • Whether to use existing platforms and channels or to create new channels

Whatever platform or channel is chosen, institutions should have the goal of creating an iterative, agile process that allows for a cycle of improvement and generates new learning from the continued asking of questions.


Finally, the Post-Problem phase, which, with respect to Einstein, likely requires more than a minute, has two major components: moving from question to action and maintaining the engaged crowd.

  • From Question to Action
    • Operationalizing the goal: turning ideas into solutions and fostering participation
    • Developing process metrics: providing evidence to ensure legitimacy and allow for iteration


  • Crowd Maintenance (sustaining the engagement)

    • Incentivizing continued participation: potential options include drawing on community pride, utilizing game elements, engendering a sense of accountability and developing a system of personal contacts
    • Creating a feedback mechanism: keeping citizens informed and involved.

More information about the GovLab Experiment: http://thegovlab.org/events/making-engagement-work/



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