‘What’s the Problem Represented to Be?’ A policy analysis tool designed by Carol Bacchi and some recent applications in the area of early childhood education policy

Dr Suzanne ManningWhitireia NZ / University of Auckland

Many ‘problems’ seem resistant to change, despite a plethora of policy. Carol Bacchi insists that this is because of the way that ‘problems’ are represented in policy. She says that to create real change, the representation of policy ‘problems’ needs to change.  Her policy analysis tool, called “What’s the problem represented to be?” (WPR) provides a guide for examining and disrupting problem representations. This tool could be useful for educational policy researchers yet is relatively unknown in Aotearoa New Zealand. This post introduces the WPR tool and gives some examples of its use in relation to early childhood education policy.


Emeritus Professor Carol Bacchi, originally from Canada, taught and researched in the area of feminist political theory for many years at the University of Adelaide before retiring in 2009. She has written three books explaining her ‘What’s the Problem Represented to Be?’ (WPR) policy analysis approach: Women, Policy and Politics, Analysing Policy, and Poststructural Policy Analysis: A guide to practice.  She has produced a short summary of the approach on pp. 21-24 of Engaging with Carol Bacchi, and continues to write about the approach on her blog.

WPR: What’s the problem represented to be?

The WPR approach starts with the ideas that:

  • Every policy seeks to solve a particular problem;
  • The policy represents the problem that it seeks to solve in a specific way; and
  • The choice of this representation advantages some groups and disadvantages others.

In Bacchi’s own words, the WPR approach to policy analysis

“challenges the conventional view that public policies are responses or reactions to problems that sit outside the policy process, waiting to be discovered and solved. By contrast, the WPR approach argues that policies contain implicit representations of the ‘problems’ they purport to address. … The goal of the WPR approach is to treat these problem representations as problematizations that require critical scrutiny.” 

The WPR approach fits within a critical paradigm because it refuses to take these problem representations for granted. Instead, the WPR approach asks us to question what effects these problem representations have, and who benefits (or not) from these effects. Bacchi stresses that this questioning of problem representations is different to the problem-solving approach of many conventional policy analysis approaches (e.g. see here and here).

Further, the WPR approach is not concerned with the intentions of policy makers (e.g. what they are trying to achieve). Instead, WPR focuses on the underlying premises, assumptions and discourses that make certain problem representations dominant in policy and other problem representations unthinkable. A good example of this is the Bailey report in 1947, which considered the ‘problem’ of pre-school education in Aotearoa NZ. This report did not recommend a full-day nursery model for pre-school education, because the report’s authors felt that in this scenario children would be deprived of the “vital experiences that only the normal home can provide”. In that era, mothers were expected to be the ‘normal’ carers of young children, and therefore the ‘problem’ of pre-school education was represented as complementary education for children. Childcare for working parents was not seen as the government’s responsibility or part of the ‘problem’. We can see how this problem representation has changed over time. The efforts of second wave feminists in the 1960s-80s contributed to changing the government’s representation of the problem: formal early childhood education is now considered beneficial for all children and for encouraging women’s participation in the paid workforce.

Problem representations in policy have important effects, which are experienced differently by different groups of people. A concern for social justice is at the core of the WPR approach:

“A WPR approach has an explicitly normative agenda. It presumes that some problem representations benefit the members of some groups at the expense of others. It also takes the side of those who are harmed. The goal is to intervene to challenge problem representations that have these deleterious effects, and to suggest that issues could be thought about in ways that might avoid at least some of these effects.” (Bacchi, 2009, p. 44)

The WPR process

The WPR approach consists of six questions. The basic method, according to Bacchi, is to select a policy or policy proposal to be analysed and apply the full set of questions, following which an assessment of the policy can be offered along with suggestions for change. There is also a directive to be self-reflexive by using the same questions on any proposals that the analysis generates. The six questions are:

  1. What’s the ‘problem’ … represented to be in a specific policy or policies?
  2. What presuppositions and assumptions underlie this representation of the ‘problem’?
  3. How has this representation of the ‘problem’ come about?
  4. What is left unproblematic in this problem representation? Where are the silences? Can the ‘problem’ be thought about differently?
  5. What effects are produced by this representation of the ‘problem’?
  6. How/where is this representation of the ‘problem’ produced, disseminated and defended? How could it be questioned, disrupted and replaced?

You can also apply this list of questions to your own problem representations.

As the questions are interrelated, there is some repetition and therefore Bacchi suggests that “the point of the analysis determines which questions are foregrounded. … As a consequence, every question need not always be addressed in every analysis, although it is useful to keep the full set of questions in mind”.

The following three examples are all studies which have used a WPR methodology.

Example One: Suzanne Manning, impact of ECE policy on Playcentres since the late 1980s

This study took the Early Childhood Education Taskforce report of 2011 as its starting policy for a WPR analysis. The two main problem representations identified were a lack of participation in early childhood education and care (ECEC) services, and an overall lack of baseline quality in those services. The development of these problem representations over three decades was related to the political shift to neoliberalism, and particularly the growing association of ECEC services with human capital development. The effects of these problem representations were shown to have created issues of sustainability for Playcentres, notably the smaller and rurally isolated centres. A further effect was that parents were discouraged from thinking of themselves as capable educators – a central concept in Playcentre philosophy.

Example Two: Judi Randall, Impacts of early childhood education social obligations policy

Judi Randall studied the impact of the social obligations policy introduced in Aotearoa NZ in 2013, which required sole parent beneficiaries to enrol their children in an ECEC service from the age of three or lose part of their benefit in sanctions. Using Bacchi’s WPR framework, the dominant problem representation was identified as long-term welfare dependency resulting in high government welfare costs, ineffective job seekers, and vulnerable children. The impact of the policy was that families were held responsible for compliance even though the barriers to compliance were not removed. The policy represented beneficiaries as a problem. This ignored alternative problem representations, such as ECEC service delivery being inappropriate or poor quality, or a lack of government planning to ensure all parents had access to ECEC services. Randall further argued that policy discourse needed to focus more on children as citizens with rights, especially their rights to basic standards of living, education and family care.

Example Three: Beutler & Fenech, Analysis of the Australian government’s jobs for families child care package

Danica Beutler and Marianne Fenech applied a WPR analysis to the Australian government’s 2017 child care package. The main problem representation was identified as unaffordable childcare limiting families’ participation in the paid workforce. The policy combined existing welfare benefits into a single Child Care Subsidy for parents in work or training. Beutler and Fenech’s analysis of the potential impact was that families with stable low-middle incomes would be better off under the new scheme. However, the most disadvantaged families (especially those not in paid employment) would have fewer choices of services, because of increased childcare fees and difficulties in accessing the subsidy. There were also important effects on the ways that these issues were talked and thought about. For example, the problem representation closed off any consideration of other reasons why parents were not in the paid workforce. The policy positioned childcare as a benefit for adults and society but was silent on the benefits to children, or the importance of service quality.


The WPR policy analysis tool designed by Carol Bacchi focuses on examining and disrupting the construction of policy problems. The tool provides an alternative to the traditional ‘problem-solving’ policy analysis approach. It is a tool that has great potential for educational and social science research.

0.jpgSuzanne Manning has recently completed a PhD with the University of Auckland, focusing on the impact of policy on Playcentres through using a WPR analysis. She currently works in learning support at Whitireia NZ, and has wide research interests in history, sociology and policy as they relate to education.


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