• April 19th, 2016

Public Problem

Paper, Order, or Assignment Requirements

Problem Definition

  1. Summarize the problem, issue, or phenomenon you are interested in.
  2. In neutral, specific terms, what is the collective action problem? (one sentence, neutral framing) What is the observation – the pattern or phenomenon – that is central to the issue?
  3. Why is this phenomenon a problem? Consider its scope, magnitude, and trend.
  4. Who are the key public decision makers (i.e., elected representatives or career administrators)? Who are the actors that have the legal authority and responsibility to make a decision on the issue at hand?
  5. Are there other sources of legitimate authority that influence the decision makers in this case? Are there are particular social or economic actors or groups that draw on this authority?
  6. Whom does the phenomenon affect? Are there particular groups, individuals, or features of society that are disproportionately affected?


  1. What makes this problem complex; i.e.. why is a fully clear, rational, optimal solution to the problem difficult or impossible to attain?
  2. What are the key elements of information ambiguity? What is not known? In what ways is the evidence unclear? What’s uncertain?
  3. What are the main value conflicts involved in this issue? What is the source of the paradox, the seemingly irreconcilable meanings about the values involved?
  4. What are the primary resource constraints to consider?
  5. What cognitive or social traps might be limiting clear, efficient decision making? (Identify and explain at least three.)




  1. When people define or frame a problem, they are drawing on some implicit objective – something that they want to achieve or improve by taking action to “solve” the problem. In terms of Stone’s categories of collective goals (equity, efficiency, welfare, liberty, security), what is/are the implied objective(s) of making a decision related to this problem?
  2. In terms of the big three approaches to decision making we discussed in class, what is the goal of the decision makers in this case (i.e., to optimize, to satisfice, to mobilize)? What approach are they likely to take?




  1. As with any decision problem, the status quo (to take no action) is always an option, even if it is generally accepted as being an undesirable one. In addition to taking no action, what are the decision alternatives (at least 2) available in this situation?
  2. What objective(s) is the implied priority for each of these alternatives?
  3. Are there factions/groups that are particularly like to advocate for these alternatives? What assumptions about values and information do those actors have that make them likely to favor a particular course of action.



Decision Assessment

  1. Now it’s time for you to help the decision maker(s) take action. Using one of the methods that we discussed in class, construct an explicit model that incorporates the relevant elements of the decision process to help the decision maker(s) decide on a course of action.
  2. Identify the name of the generic method of model you are using (e.g., Schelling’s sorting model; Bayes’ Rule)
  3. Define the outcome of interest (i.e., the phenomenon, behavior, or pattern you’re modeling).
  4. Identify the units of observation / action / analysis on which observations are made or data is drawn.
  5. Identify the key variables or features that contribute to the outcome.
  6. Specify the arrangement or structure of the relationships among the variables at the outcome. Is it an equation? Is it a graph of the pattern over space or time?
  7. To the extent that you can, set up the model in the context of the problem. This does not require that you do a lot of empirical work, it just means that you have to provide a reasonable set of values to show how the model is applied to this problem. If possible, solve the model for the outcome.




  1. Thinking back to Epstein, what are the primary reasons (discuss at least 2) that building explicit models is useful to understand and guide decision making in this scenario?
  2. Is the model that you constructed a normative model or a descriptive model?
  3. What are the limitations of the explicit model you have built? (Consider the limits of the general approach this model takes to decision making in the context of the problem you’re studying.)
  4. How does your model “improve” the decision making process? Why does it not eliminate the need for human judgment?
  5. What decision or course of action would you recommend to the decision maker? Why?

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