Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith developed the ACF to describe and explain a complicated policymaking environment which:
- contains multiple actors and levels of government;
- produces decisions despite high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity;
- takes years to turn decisions into outcomes; and,
- processes policy in very different ways. Some issues involve intensely politicized disputes containing many actors. Others are treated as technical and processed routinely, largely by policy specialists, out of the public spotlight.
The ACF’s key terms are:
Beliefs. People engage in politics to translate their beliefs into action. There are three main types. ‘Core’ are fundamental and unlikely to change (like a ‘religious conversion’) but too broad to guide detailed policy (such as one’s views on human nature). ‘Policy core’ are more specific (such as the proper balance between government and market) but still unlikely to change. ‘Secondary Aspects’ relate to the implementation of policy. They are the most likely to change, as people learn about the effects of, say, regulations versus economic incentives.
Advocacy coalition. A coalition contains, ‘people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers) who share a particular belief system’ and ‘who show a non-trivial degree of coordinated activity over time’.
Policy learning. Coalitions learn from policy implementation. Learning takes place through the lens of deeply held beliefs, producing different interpretations of facts and events in different coalitions. Learning is a political process – coalitions selectively interpret information and use it to exercise power. In some cases, there are commonly accepted ways to measure policy performance. In others, it is a battle of ideas where coalitions ‘exaggerate the influence and maliciousness of opponents’. Technical information is often politicised and a dominant coalition can successfully challenge the data supporting policy change for years
Subsystems. Coalitions compete with each other to dominate policymaking in subsystems. Subsystems are issue-specific networks. They are pervasive in government because elected officials devolve policymaking responsibility to bureaucrats who, in turn, consult routinely with participants such as interest groups. While the literature on ‘policy communities’ and ‘monopolies’ describes the potential for insulated relationships between a small number of actors, the ACF identifies many actors in each coalition
Policy broker and sovereign. Subsystems contain actors who mediate between coalitions and make authoritative decisions (although policymakers may be members of coalitions).
Policy change over a ‘decade or more’. We are generally talking about relationships, policies and change over a full ‘policy cycle’.
Enlightenment. Core beliefs are ‘normative’ and ‘largely beyond direct empirical challenge’; unlikely to change during routine policy learning in one cycle. However, they may change over decades.
The subsystem contains generally-routine policymaking, producing relatively minor policy change: coalitions engage in policy learning, adapting the secondary aspects of their beliefs in light of new information. In most cases, learning follows the routine monitoring of implementation, as members consider how policy contributes to positive or unintended outcomes and whether their beliefs are challenged or supported by the evidence (and how it is presented by their competitors).
This process takes place in a wider system that sets the parameters for action, providing each coalition with different constraints and opportunities. It includes:
• factors that are ‘relatively stable’, such as ‘social values’ and the broad ‘constitutional structure’;
• ‘long term coalition opportunity structures’ related to the nature of different political systems (unitary/ federal, concentrated/ divided powers, single/ multi-party, coalition/ minority government) and the ‘degree of consensus needed for major change’
• ‘external (system) events’ such as socio-economic change, a change in government, or important decisions made in other subsystems.
In rare cases, external events prompt subsystem instability and the potential for rapid, major policy change. Events may set in motion ‘internal’ or ‘external shocks’. An internal shock relates to the effect of major external change on a coalition’s belief system, akin to a crisis of confidence. The event prompts a coalition to revisit its policy core beliefs, perhaps following a realisation by many of its actors that existing policies have failed monumentally, followed by their departure to a different coalition. An external shock has the added element of competition – another coalition uses the experience of a major event to reinforce its position within the subsystem, largely by demonstrating that its belief system is best equipped to interpret new information and solve the policy problem. In other words, the external event is not enough to cause an external shock; it also has to be exploited successfully by a competing coalition which is well led, and equipped to learn and adapt – using resources to frame information, exploit public opinion, rally support, (and, in some cases, secure funding)
Externally prompted change may vary, from the election of a new government with beliefs that favour one coalition over another, to a ‘focusing event’ such as an environmental crisis that undermines the ability of a coalition to defend current policy. While many external factors – global recession, environmental crises, demographic changes – appear to solely cause change, coalitions also influence how sovereigns understand, interpret and respond to them. External events provide new resources to some coalitions – it is up to them to exploit the opportunity.
The ACF developed initially from case studies in the US, with a particular focus on environmental policy. It has changed markedly to reflect its application to cases outside the US and in other policy fields (and by new scholars). For example, the discussion of ‘long term coalition opportunity structures’ resulted from applications to European countries with proportional electoral systems and/ or fewer ‘venues’ in which to pursue policy change. The ACF is also revised constantly to reflect the desire of its core team (now driven by Weible and Jenkins-Smith) to clarify/ revise earlier arguments in light of experience. It remains one of the most ambitious policy frameworks which tries to provide an overview of the entire policy process.