Monday, February 15, 2010

Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies

By John W. Kingdon

Instead of looking at how particular programs get put in place or how political decisions are made, Kindgon focuses on how issues come to the attention of government in the first place. Why do some issues get on the agenda on others not? He provides a theory that includes three separate, but loosely-coupled streams – problem, policy, and political. The problem stream is where particular problems get identified – due to focusing events, changes in indicators, or other items. The policy stream is dominated by academics, researchers, bureaucrats and others that look into the details of various issues. Possible specific alternatives for programs are developed in the policy stream. The political stream is dominated by the visible people in government – the president, Congress, and heads of agencies – they help to identify the major issues of political importance, but not the detailed alternatives. Political issues are based on the national mood, the party in power, and other political events. Issues get on the decision agenda when all three of these streams come together – usually because a policy entrepreneur has recognized a window of opportunity and brought them together.

Chapter 1 – How Does An Idea’s Time Come?
In the first chapter, Kingdon explains the aim of his book – to explain why and how particular issues come to dominate the government and decision agenda. He makes a distinction between the development of issues and alternatives. Issues are the broad areas of concern – health care costs, water-way fees, etc., while alternatives are the specific, practical ideas that could be implemented. He also makes a distinction between the government agenda, which are things that people in and around government are aware of, and the decision agenda, which includes only the issues that are ‘front-burner’ and on which efforts are made to discuss and take action. He also explains that his research was carried out using a series of interviews and questionnaires.

Chapter 2 – Participants on the Inside of Government
Kingdon begins by examining the importance of various actors within the government. He first looks at the administration, finding that the President is ranked in his interviews and questionnaires as one of the most important players in setting the agenda. If the President decides to focus on a particular issue, it is sure to be moved to the top of many other decision-makers lists. Political appointees – the people who run various department within the executive branch, are ranked relatively high. By contrast, the president’s staff and bureaucrats are not ranked as highly regarding their influence on agenda-setting. Kingdon suggests that these less visible actors play a greater role in identifying specific alternatives, rather than setting the agenda. Congressmen are ranked almost as highly as the president in their importance in decision making, while their staff not ranked so high. These findings help support the idea that the elected officials – the president and congressmen – are the people with the most influence on agenda-setting within the government.

Chapter 3 – Outside of Government, But Not Just Looking In
There are a number of groups that are not officially working for the government, but that have some influence on agenda-setting and policy-making. Interest groups are often cited as being very important to decision making, but Kingdon finds that their significance can vary significantly depending on the issue. Interest groups can get involved in both agenda setting and/or defining alternatives. Academics, Researchers, and Consultants are found to be important in defining alternatives as well – either through the long-term process of developing academic theories that are eventually applied to society through policy, or by directly studying or working on issues relevant to current events and helping to debate and develop policy. The media, elections, and public opinion are all found to have only indirect effects on agenda setting or alternatives. These groups do not seem to be influential based on Kingdon’s interviews and surveys. However, it’s likely that they do affect the process in indirect ways. For example, the media may report on issues being discussed in government, making the public more aware and amenable to the various alternatives being discussed. Or promises made during elections may cause individuals or groups to attempt to hold a politician to his word after he is elected.

In general, based on Chapters 2 and 3, Kingdon concludes that there is a difference between visible and hidden participants. Visible participants – the president, Congress, political appointees, some interest groups, etc. – are more likely to play a role in defining broad agenda items. It is the hidden participants – bureaucrats, presidential and congressional staff, interest groups, academics – that play the larger role in defining specific alternatives to be considered.

Chapter 4 – Processes: Origins, Rationality, Incrementalism, and Garbage Cans
The basis for the model presented in the book comes from an earlier developed ‘garbage can model.’ This model suggests that in some organizations, the people involved, problems, alternatives, and other issues are all being developed simultaneously, and when a ‘choice opportunity’ arises, people through various ideas, levels of participation, etc. into the ‘choice opportunity’ garbage can and a decision is made based on these inputs.

This model is very distinct from the rational decision making model, which suggests that decision-making occurs in a logical order: a problem arises, alternatives are developed and weighed, and a decision is made to choose the best alternative. Another popular model is the ‘incremental model’ which suggests that policy changes are only made in small, incremental stages. Kingdon argues that neither of these traditional models adequately explains the reality of government decision-making. Decisions don’t seem to follow a strictly logical progression through government, and some issues seem to become ‘hot’ all of a sudden, with big changes implemented, rather than undergoing exclusively incremental changes.

Kingdon suggests that the federal government is more akin to the garbage can model than to the rational decision making or incremental models. Further refining this theory, he describes three distinct streams – problem, policy, and politics – in which processes continue largely independent of each other. When a window of opportunity arises, it is possible for these three streams to intersect, and this results in an issue being discussed and decided on by the government.

Chapter 5 – Problems
The problem stream is the area in which legitimate problems become identified. This can occur because particular indicators show a change occurring – for example, social security costs rising or infant mortality rates rising – that is interpreted as a problem to be addressed. The budget is a particularly important case of indicators – budgetary issues are often cited as a major problem leading to reviewing issues and considering alternatives. Problems can also be identified based on focusing events, crises, or symbols – for example, a plane crash may lead to a review of FAA safety regulations. Problems can be identified through normal feedback procedures – reports, reviews, or other systems set up by the government to monitor the health of government programs. Often policy entrepreneurs are involved in publicizing problems. Getting people to see problems, and framing problems in a particular way, is a major conceptual and political accomplishment.

Chapter 6 – The Policy Primeval Soup
Researchers, academics, and others are the primary players in the policy stream, and their focus is on developing specific alternatives. They develop new ideas, discuss the ideas with each other, and combine and change existing ideas. Kingdon describes this process as a ‘primeval soup’ in which ideas float around, combine, split, and rise or sink in popularity. Within the policy stream, the method for building consensus involves discussion and debate – people try to convince each other of the worthiness of particular ideas.

The ability of a community to come up with and agree on alternatives is affected by their cohesiveness – health professionals tend to go to the same conferences and meetings, while transportation professionals are often split into their particular mode – air, rail, shipping, etc. It’s also important that these communities regularly ‘float’ new ideas into the public and political arenas, allowing people to become familiar with particular options well before any decision needs to be made. It is unlikely that completely novel, not previously heard of ideas become get serious consideration when Congress or other government actors are making decisions. Though a wide variety of ideas are considered, there are some general criteria for survival, including technical feasibility (it has to be possible to implement), value acceptability (it should fit with an administration’s values – such as small government), and anticipation of future constraints (such as budget constraints and public acquiescence).

Chapter 7 – The Political Stream
The primary actors in the political stream are the visible government actors – the president, Congress, and others. The political stream primarily comes up with agenda items rather than alternatives. Within this group, consensus is formed primarily by bargaining and making concessions to build a coalition. The political considerations can be based on the national mood (in favor of spending, budget conscious), as well as organized political forces such as interest groups. A major source of political opportunity may arise from the turnover of key personnel. If a new administration comes to power, particularly if it is of a different party, the political opportunities may change significantly. Turn-over of political appointees can have a similar effect.

Chapter 8 – The Policy Window, and Joining the Streams
Kingdon describes a ‘policy window’ as similar to a ‘launch window’ for space rockets – there are specific windows of time in which the rocket can launch, and if it misses the window, it has to wait for the next one. A policy window is the particular period of time in which an issue, alternative, and problem can be coupled together and make it onto the decision agenda. The windows can open because a particular problem is brought to the forefront by a disaster or government report, or it could open because of the change in administration. A window opening can even be routine – as with the yearly authorization and appropriation of the federal budget.

When the window is open, a policy entrepreneur must be ready to tie all three streams together to push the issue to the decision agenda. If a problem is identified, but no feasible alternatives exist to solve it, it will be unlikely to make it on the agenda. Similarly, if there is political interest in an issue, but it can’t be tied to a pressing problem, it will likely fall to the wayside. The entrepreneur has to be ready when the window opens to take action immediately.

Chapter 9 – Wrapping Things Up
In this chapter, which was the last chapter in the first edition of the book, Kingdon summarizes the findings of the book. He notes that agenda setting is done by the visible actors, and involves identifying major issues of interest. Alternative specification is done by the hidden actors, and these alternatives are more detailed and implementable than broad agenda items. Though they develop separately, by different processes and often in different communities - all three streams – problem, policy, and political – need to be coupled together to take advantage of policy windows. This is often done by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs may have a problem or alternative of particular interest that they search for adequate items with which to couple.

Chapter 10 – Further Reflections
In the second edition of the book, Kingdon added a tenth chapter to apply his theory to some issues that had occurred since the previous edition. One example was the 1986 tax cuts. He noted that in the mid-80’s all three streams were positioned to join. Politics reflected the national mood of anger over high taxes and the unfair benefits of tax loopholes for the wealthy. There was a grecognized problem with the deficit and the complexities of the tax code. Alternatives the theories on the benefits of simplifying taxes had been floated over the course of many years and had build a good deal of consensus on the theories. Given this situation, the theory would suggest the tax reform would pass, as it did in reality. Interestingly, Kingdon notes that the original pressure was for tax reduction, though the final legislation only put into effect tax reform – this shows one way in which the garbage can model can have not entirely rational results. Kingdon also noted that healthcare was an issue that Clinton was trying to take on – the political stream had provided an opportunity, given the Clinton administration’s focus on the issue, and a problem was identified – rising costs of healthcare. However, Kingdon suggested that there was not a consensus on a feasible alternative, and that this could cause the healthcare initiative to fail (he was writing in 1993).


Fr. said...

Just stumbled on your summary/blog. Nice job!

jalski said...

Thanks a lot for your blog. I myself am studying this as of the moment; contemplating on doing the same with my annotations and notes. Best of luck with your studies!

Mike said...

Great information. I had never heard of Kingdon until recently. I just blogged about how is ideas apply to principals leading schools here,


serseri_mayin said...

Thanks for summary. It is useful and short. Best wishes...