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The Pitfalls of Framing: Decision Traps in Public Service

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
June 4, 2018

Challenger Space Shuttle Explodes
January 28, 1986

As the Rogers Commission investigated the loss of Challenger, testimony from Morton Thiokol (MTI) engineers revealed a major shift in the pre-launch review process. For prior launches, MTI had to prove it was safe to fly. But in this case, NASA balked at the initial recommendation that it was too cold. In a late night teleconference, MTI was asked to prove it was NOT safe to fly. As engineer Brian Russell told the Commission, “I had the feeling that we were in… the position of having to prove it was unsafe instead of the other way around, which was a totally new experience.” Since MTI could not prove the negative, its management reversed itself and gave the go-ahead for launch.

Framing in Public Service

By framing the problem as “prove it is NOT safe to fly,” NASA changed the decision dynamics. Framing is critical in public service decisionmaking. In one study, researchers asked survey respondents to name the most important problem facing the nation. When given four choices and the option of naming something else, 60 percent chose one of the four. When given no choices, just a blank space, only 2 percent mentioned any of the four.

In a special case of framing, the anchor effect, decisions can be swayed by the starting point for discussion. Asked if they would be willing to contribute toward saving 50,000 seabirds from the dangers of oil spills, participants in a study gave an average donation of $64. When others were asked if they would contribute $20, the average was only $5. When still others were asked if they would contribute $400, the average was $143.

While preventing framing problems may seem easy, most framing is less obvious. In many cases, the first person to speak frames the discussion, which centers around his or her way of looking at the issue. When a decision is an “either-or” choice — that frames the solution as limited to only two options. This is classic in the culture wars: anti-abortion advocates frame the issue as “right to life;” opponents frame it as “right to choose.” Managers skilled in crafting budgets recognize their initial request frames the starting point, before cuts, which is why budget requests are often inflated.

Frames Need Not Blind Us

There are ways to break the framing trap:

  • To avoid “either-or” framing, make sure you generate more than two options. NASA pressured MTI to choose “fly or don’t fly.” The choice of “fly when it’s not so cold” was not seriously considered. Nor was the choice of telling top NASA leaders about the great risk in launching at such a cold temperature, a risk they might well have politically not been willing to take.
  • One way to see a problem from a different frame is to find out how others have confronted it. Stuck in the debate between the frames of “gun rights” vs. “gun control,” ask how some cities or states have done both.
  • Flip the frame. Take the opposite view and consider it. After World War II, Americans wanted to retreat from Europe. Secretary of State George C. Marshall showed them that the only way to secure peace and a growing economy at home was to help Europe get back on its feet. The result was the Marshall Plan.
  • Invite someone to challenge your frame. Told early in his presidency that a CIA-led rebel invasion of Cuba would rally the people against Fidel Castro, President Kennedy failed to ask his generals the question: what if Cubans rally to Castro’s side instead of abandoning him as you predict? This is, of course, what Cubans did.
  • Role-play others. If a decision involves those who might have a strikingly different view, look at it as if you were them. Concerned your boss does not understand your request, pretend you are her and ask what demands she is facing. If nothing else, this vantage point may help you put your request in terms that complement her needs.
  • Pick another starting point (anchor). What choices does it suggest? Want a new program at a cost of $2 million, ask what you could do if you only had $200,000.

In his annual message to Congress in December 1862, shortly before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln captured the importance of seeing the world through a different frame: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he said. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” Finding new frames can lead to much better decisions.


Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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