By Gabriele Bammer
How can all the possibilities for understanding and acting on a complex social or environmental problem be elucidated? How can a fuller appreciation of both the problem and the options for tackling it be developed, so that the best approach to dealing with it can be identified? In other words, how can a problem be scoped?
The point of scoping is to illuminate a range of options. It moves those dealing with the complex problem beyond their assumptions and existing knowledge to considering the problem and the possibilities for action more broadly.
Practicalities, however, dictate that everything cannot be included, so that scoping is inevitably followed by boundary setting. Boundaries determine what is included and excluded, as well as what is central and what is marginal. The point of undertaking an extensive scoping process first is to ensure that critical issues are less likely to be ignored.
Eight Question Framework
Despite the importance of scoping, I am not aware of tools for how to undertake it. I developed an eight-question framework in response to an invitation to write a chapter on ‘Methods of scoping a public health issue’ for the (then) new Oxford Handbook of Public Health Practice. The framework has now persisted through three editions (latest edition is Bammer 2013). The eight questions I devised are:
- What do we know about the problem?
- What can different interest groups and academic disciplines contribute to addressing this problem?
- What areas are contentious?
- What are the big-picture issues? In other words, what are the political, social, and cultural aspects of the problem?
- Why is this problem on the agenda now?
- What support and resources are likely to be available for tackling the problem?
- What parts of the problem are already well covered and where are the areas of greatest need?
- Where can the most strategic interventions be made?
The first four questions help identify the dimensions of the problem, while the last four help set priorities.
Seven Phase Framework
I recently came across The Change Management Toolbook (Nauheimer 1997), which provides a nine-phase scoping tool for professional consultants to delineate a new consulting request. It was adapted by the author and compiler, Holger Nauheimer, from Fritz Simon and Christel Rech-Simon’s book “Zirkuläres Fragen” (Circular Interviews) used in psychiatry (latest edition is 2004). I have further adapted the tool here to be relevant to scoping research and action on complex social and environmental problems, reducing it to seven phases.
Phase 1: Analyse the Context
- When did the problem attract attention?
- Who raised the problem? How was the decision to do something about the problem arrived at? What do those who raised the problem expect? What is their general situation?
- How did you and your group decide to work on the problem? Are you the best people for the job? What do those who raised the problem know about you?
- Is there anybody who is against understanding and tackling the problem? What are the objections?
- What experience do those who raised the problem have in terms of working with researchers on problems such as the current one? If there is previous experience, are there lessons to be learnt for doing things similarly or differently for the current problem?
Phase 2: Specify Objectives
- Who will recognize that the goal of improved understanding and action on the problem is achieved? How will somebody recognize that the goal is achieved?
- What exactly is to be understood and changed?
- Who is affected positively or negatively by increasing understanding and the change that is expected?
- What exactly is the positive or negative impact of increasing understanding and the change?
Phase 3: Analyse Previous Strategies to Understand and Tackle the Problem
- What has been successful in the past?
- What were the conditions? What was done to achieve the goal?
- If there are no past successes to draw on, what evidence is there that the objectives are realistic?
Phase 4: Review Potential Opposition
- Who could prevent improved understanding and change on the problem? Or even reverse the change (in case the objective was achieved)? What could he/she do?
- Who could make the problem worse?
Phase 5: Assess Your Role
- What can you and your group do to increase the chance of achieving the goal?
- What can you and your group do to decrease the chance of achieving the goal?
- Will you and your group be seen as partisan or neutral?
Phase 6: Look at Alternatives
- Without you and your group, how would the problem be addressed? How would the goals be achieved?
- If the problem is not addressed (with or without you and your group), how will it proceed?
Phase 7: Delineate Time Perspectives
- How long do those who raised the problem expect it will take to achieve the goal?
- Is the timeline for the involvement of you and your group realistic?
There is some overlap between the two sets of questions, but there are also important differences in focus, which suggests that using them together will be most productive. The point of the questions is to be provocative rather than directive in order to expand considerations about understanding and acting on the problem.
How do you go about scoping? Are there other tools that you can share?
Bammer, G. (2013). ‘Scoping public health problems’. In Guest, C., Ricciardi, W., Kawachi, I., Lang, I. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Public Health Practice, 3rd edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2-10
Nauheimer, H. (1997). The change management toolbook. A collection of tools, methods and strategies. Online (open access): https://www.slideshare.net/luismolina787/the-original-changemanagementtoolbook-copia
Simon, F. B. and Rech-Simon, C. (2004). Zirkuläres Fragen. Systemische Therapie in Fallbeispielen: Ein Lernbuch. 6. Auflage. Carl-Auer-Systeme-Verlag: Heidelberg, Germany.
Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the US National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center.
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