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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.

The problem stream includes issues that require attention, and identifies ways in which policy-makers can become aware of them, such as indicators (e.g. spiking unemployment rates) or 'focusing events' (e.g. natural disasters, but also political scandals, see Birkland & Warnerment, 2016). Problems are not objective facts, but rather social constructs that become relevant because someone framed them in a way that captured the attention of decision-makers.

The policy stream identifies a solution for the problem that is available and feasible. Solutions may evolve independently of problems. They float in what Kingdon called a ‘primaeval soup’, in preparation for future problems. However, only a few solutions survive this soup, based on technical feasibility, value acceptability, public acquiescence, and financial availability. More importantly, the MSA requires agency. Solutions only reach the agenda stage thanks to policy entrepreneurs (people with the necessary knowledge, power and tenacity to exploit the heightened levels of attention to promote their advocated solutions), who shop around to find appropriate venues in which they can find problems for the solution they want to propose.

Finally, the politics stream concerns structural factors such as the governing party’s ideology, the national mood or public opinion to determine whether a solution would be supported. When these three independent streams are coupled, often thanks to focusing events and the relentless work of policy entrepreneurs, who build or sustain coalitions and broker communication between different actors, a policy window of opportunity opens up to provide the institutional context with the necessary constraints and opportunities to create specific policies (for a discussion on the streams, see Cairney & Zahariadis, 2016; Jones et al., 2016; Herweg et al., 2017).

Figure 2: Wired (2013, August 8th). The Most Bonkers Scientific Theories [Drawing].

Policy windows, however, do not remain open indefinitely, and timing is key to pushing the proposal to the government’s agenda. As Cairney (2019: 201) puts it, the coupling of these streams resembles a ‘timely space launch that requires key conditions to be met at the same time' and in which the final outcome remains rather unpredictable. Thus, the MSA explains agenda-setting by means of serendipity and human agency, which cannot however be divorced from structure and context.

The Advocacy Coalition Framework

Paul Sabatier developed the ACF in an attempt to build a causal model of policy change and learning as an alternative to the stages heuristic, which he deemed as descriptively inaccurate (Sabatier, 1986). The main questions that the ACF is concerned with refer to issues of policy change, interaction among actors with different beliefs, and how and whether these actors can learn from each other (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2017).

In the ACF, the unit of analysis is represented by ‘those actors from a variety of public and private organisations who are actively concerned with a policy problem’ (Sabatier, 1987: 652). Actors in the policy subsystem ‘seek to influence policy over the long term’ (Sabatier, 1998).

Figure 3: Wattson, S. (2020). A photo of a group of students from the Student Advocacy Coalition spreading social justice awareness [photo] PeoplesNewspaper.

Actors’ perceptions are filtered by their pre-existing beliefs (Sabatier, 1998), meaning that analysis is used in an advocacy fashion (hence the name). Beliefs are therefore the causal drivers behind actors’ decisions. The ACF identifies three tiers of beliefs. Deep core beliefs are those ontological and normative characteristics that define the individual (i.e. whether they are left- or right-leaning) and are the most resistant to change. Policy core beliefs include the fundamental value priorities within the policy domain that glue together the various coalitions, such as common understandings on the overall seriousness of the problem or its basic causes. Finally, the secondary aspects are those beliefs that concern the seriousness of specific aspects, the importance of causal linkages or technicalities for achieving the policy goal – these are the most amenable to change and make policy-oriented learning possible (Sabatier, 1998).

Actors with shared ideologies and world-views regroup to form coalitions, as a way for individual actors to solve common pool problems (Schlager, 1995). Actors outside the coalitions, but with links to both, who play a conciliatory role by looking for a compromise between them are called policy brokers. Their role is usually based on reputation and bipartisanship: they are often ideologically neutral actors, such as administrative agencies (Weible & Ingold, 2018).

The basic argument of the ACF is that policy change within a subsystem can be understood as the product of two processes: (i) the efforts of the advocacy coalitions within the subsystem to translate policy core and secondary beliefs into government action; and (ii) perturbations in non-cognitive factors external to the subsystem, especially for what regards changes in the policy core (Sabatier 1988, 1998). The process of advocacy is represented in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Sabatier (1998) Schematisation of the Advocacy Coalition Framework.

Given a set of relatively stable parameters, a policy subsystem in equilibrium may be characterised by a policy monopoly. Dynamic events external to the subsystem may make the monopoly increasingly contested and mobilise previously disinterested actors. This brings about a sudden shift in policy that might otherwise have not been possible, thus raising a previously uncontested issue. Each coalition first rallies around beliefs on which its actors show substantial consensus, though they may differ on secondary aspects. Secondly, it seeks the necessary resources to identify the causes of the issue and obtain political support to implement the new policy (or resist its implementation) in the way that best suits its belief system.

The two coalitions engage in an analytical debate where information and theses are presented in an advocacy fashion. This means that, while intra-coalition learning may and does take place, especially around the secondary aspects of the belief system, inter-coalition learning is much more difficult. As a result, policy change is affected by policy-oriented learning only when certain conditions for the analytical debate to be fruitful occur. This is why brokerage between coalitions is important, as the policy broker is able to avoid stalemates by altering the coalitions' own beliefs in the short term.

The Narrative Policy Framework

The NPF is a comprehensive approach to studying public policy that aspires to capture the policy process at multiple levels of analysis, across time and within any context (Jones et al., 2022). The key assertion of the NPF is that, while there exists an objective world independent of human perception, what this world means to political actors is a socially constructed process, and the way we attach meaning to the world is through stories (or narratives), which are used as heuristic devices to reduce ambiguity and help people make sense of a complex environment (Peterson & Jones, 2016: 106).

Policy narratives rely on a structure akin to that of literary narratives, based on form and content. The form of the policy narratives refers to the structure of the story, which must contain some combination of setting, plot, characters (hero, villain, victim), and moral (policy solution) (Jones et al., 2014: 5). The content of the policy narratives, instead, consists of ‘those more unique facets of a story related to its specific context,’ the belief system and the narrative strategies (Jones, 2018: 728). Belief systems ground actors’ narratives and bind the understanding of narrative elements to specific meanings (Jones et al., 2014: 7). Narrative strategies, instead, concern the ways in which actors employ these narratives to win the policy debate.

Figure 5: Peterson (2018). Schematisation of the Narrative Policy Framework, at multiple levels of analysis.

All these elements can operate at different levels of analysis: micro, meso and macro, though each level is usually explored individually, and each with a different goal (see Figure 5). Micro-level analyses examine how individuals use and are receptive to narratives and how these influence individual opinions and perceptions about public policy (e.g. Shanahan et al., 2011a). At the meso-level, the goal is to understand how groups use policy narratives to try and influence public policy (e.g. Shanahan et al., 2013). Finally, the macro-level of analysis concerns the identification of congruence between narratives and the macro-cultural structures (e.g. Ney, 2014).

Some concluding thoughts

Although these three theories are among the most popular (in the case of the MSA and the AFC) and trendy (for the NPF), they are far from representing the totality of theories of public policy. Rather, these three theories are those that best represented the socially constructed ontology of public policy-making and showed the misguided approach of the stages heuristic, as dicussed in the previous two instalments of the series.

Nevertheless, there exist several other analytical approaches. The Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET) is another theory of agenda setting and policy change (i.e. it does not cover the entire policy process) that draws on the homonymous theory in evolutionary biology (Gould & Eldredge, 1972). It suggests that long periods of slow, incremental policy changes are alternated with short bursts of dramatic change (Baumgartner & Jones, 2009; Baumgartner et al., 2017). It has mostly been used to analyse government budget trends (e.g. Baumgartner et al., 2006).

Policy Feedback Theory (PFT, see Metller & SoRelle, 2017) contends that policies shape the political behaviour of actors, which in turn shape public policies at a subsequent time, thus creating a feedback loop of policy inheritance. It is normally employed in the context of historical institutional analysis (e.g. Streeck & Thelen, 2005).

Figure 6: Howlett (2018). Synthesis of the MSA at multiple stages of the policy process as an example of how theories of the policy process can work at different levels of the policy cycle.

The Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) and its related Socio-Ecological System (SES) frameworks developed by Nobel prize-winning Eleanor Ostrom (1990, 2009; see also McGinnis, 2011 for a breakdown) seek to explain the logic, design and performance of institutional arrangements (Schlager & Cox, 2017). In other words, the goal is (i) to understand how people use institutional arrangements to address shared problems; (ii) to understand how these institutional arrangements create intricately linked ecosystems; and (iii) to identify sources of dysfunctional performance.

Finally, it is important to note how these theories can be integrated into wider frameworks for analysis (e.g. Howlett, 2018). The NPF is particularly flexible in this regard. It has been employed in conjunction with the MSA (McBeth & Lybecker, 2018), the ACF (Shanahan et al., 2011b), the PET (Peterson, 2018), and some elements of the IAD (Dunlop et al., 2021). The next step, given this varied theoretical background, is then to understand who the actors of public policy-making are and how they interact.


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Marco Schito

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