Monday, March 26, 2018

We Must Understand Policy to Change Policy


John Lennon says, ‘We all want to change the world’. If we specify what exactly we want to change, two very common targets are the private sector and government. Many advocates devote their lives and careers to influencing these two sectors.  However, commensurate with this dedication, we need greater conceptual understanding regarding the conditions under which government policy and corporate behavior change.  In other words, advocates need to grapple with when that change happens. 

In this post, I focus on my favorite book on government policy changes.  The single best resource I have found to date for understanding the conditions under which government policy changes is John Kingdon’s Agendas, Public Policy and Streams (though a colleague coauthored another great article here).  This book, which is primarily based on interviews with federal government politicians and officials in the late 1970s, helps to organize the many aspects of policy change into a basic conceptual framework. 

Stage 1: Agenda ----------à  Stage 2: Alternatives ------à            Stage 3: Policy
Problem & Politics                 Solutions emerge                             

The diagram roughly sketches the main elements of the conceptual framework of Kingdon.  The main idea is that there are three streams - problem, politics and policy alternatives – that must align for a policy to change.  In other words, each is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

In stage one, he first describes two principal ways that issues move to the top of the government policy agenda, which involves the problem stream and the politics stream.  The problem stream relates to the perception of the importance and urgency of a particular issue.  When politicians consider an issue as a national crisis, as follows a large terrorist attack or the spread of a disease, then they are generally moved to action. On the other hand, sudden political events can drastically shift agendas, most obviously swings in political party control of the government.  Either one of these events can bring about what Kingdon calls a ‘policy window’, in which an issue may see movement.  However both of these streams must at least support the issue in order for it to move forward.  

In stage 2, Kingdon describes a process by which a few solutions addressing the particular policy issue emerge from a policy community.  The community includes academics, policy wonks, civil servants, advocates, lobbyists and others, who jointly develop a large variety of potential policy alternatives.    Through debate, discussions, advocacy and many other actions, a few solutions will rise to the top.  For a solution to be seriously considered, it shouldn’t just be technically appropriate, but also politically acceptable, especially to the elected officials in power.

The main reason I like this simple framework is that it breaks down the messy policy process into more coherent phases, and offers insight into how each phase works.  Using this framework and identifying the dynamics of each phase, advocates should be able to work more effectively – for better or for worse.  Here are a few specific ways that the basic ideas of Kingston help.

Policy organizations aim to influence all three of these streams, though different organizations are more capable of influencing particular streams. An organization can seek to raise awareness of a problem, providing evidence of a public crisis and communicating that message either to the public at large or within the policy community.  Many non-profit advocacy groups focus here, highlighting social issues and emphasizing the urgency to address the problem, without in-depth analysis of solutions or a massive political coalition to push the issue.  Second, an organization can work to change the political makeup of the government, through mobilizing membership to vote a certain way or through threatening negative press.  Mass membership organizations such as teachers unions or hospital associations are effective here, given their widespread membership in many congressional districts, but so are media savvy organizations.  Third, an organization can engage with the policy community to develop solutions.  This area of work is the primary function of Washington think tanks, though universities are often on the cutting edge of innovative solutions. 

If a community of concerned actors cannot influence all three of these dynamics at once, then absent a sudden crisis, it is likely that policy change will not happen in the short term.  But at least the framework can help identify the main impediment for a particular issue to move forward, whether on the problem front, the politics front, or the policy alternatives front; and the community of concerned actors can focus greater efforts to address that impediment.

Moreover, if a policy organization or a researcher is flexible in their issue area and want to find relevance in a relatively short period of time, then understanding these dynamics and choosing an area of expertise accordingly can help.  For example, foresight of a surge in crime or an imminent housing crisis would suggest that policy makers will be looking at these issues closely soon.  Of course, in an environment in which a policy community has developed, a newcomer might cause tensions with the organizations that have spent years on a particular issue. 

On a more personal level as a researcher, Kingdon’s book also provides a sense of how research makes a difference.  I often lament that, no matter how good the ideas, research usually does not find its way into policy.  Kingdon recognizes the difficulty in discerning a direct path by which an idea comes to influence policy, but discusses how this community of scholars, practitioners and others is essential to developing policy proposals that are ripe to respond to the agenda that emerges. 


In sum, while none of these are revolutionary ideas, the framework helps organize and prioritize factors involved in the policy process in a useful and even actionable way.

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