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Public Policy 101: An Overview of the Theories of the Policy Process


Public policies are everywhere in today’s world, but their ubiquity is also why their definition is often elusive and the analysis of public policies tends to be complex. The Public Policy 101 series offers the reader several tools of analysis that help make sense of the complexity of public policies. This 101 series comprises eight different articles, each focusing on a different aspect, which should provide the reader with a framework of analysis to better understand the complex world of public policy-making.

  1. What is public policy?

  2. The stages of the policy process

  3. Rationalist and constructivist ontology in public policy

  4. An overview of the theories of the policy process

  5. The public policy actors

  6. The policy subsystem

  7. Beyond national public policy

  8. New approaches in public policy studies

An overview of the theories of the policy process

Theories of the policy process mostly developed due to dissatisfaction with the policy cycle approach and the comprehensive rationality assumption. These theories represent the epistemological arm of public policy analysis by offering standards to establish the accuracy of conjectures around public policy-making. Due to reasons of space, this article will offer an overview of only three theories of the policy process (for an extensive description, see Weible & Sabatier, 2017). These are the Multiple Streams Approach (MSA), the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF), and the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF).

The Multiple Streams Approach

The MSA was first developed by John Kingdon in the 1980s as an attempt to answer the question, ‘what makes an idea’s time come?’ The MSA rejects the notion of a linear decision-making process and instead sees policy-makers acting in a situation of uncertainty and ambiguity. The key objective for policy actors is to raise attention to some issues at the expense of others.

Kingdon (2011) suggested the metaphor of three independent streams – problem, policy and politics – that must come together at the same time during a 'window of opportunity' for new ideas to be accepted and acted upon (Cairney, 2019: 195). It is here that policy change is most likely to occur. The process is represented in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Jones et al. (2016) Schematisation of the Multiple Streams Approach.</