Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis

garbage cans streams

(podcast download)

‘Ideas’ are the beliefs we develop and use to understand and interpret the world. Some beliefs are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we generally take them for granted. Others are more visible – our beliefs about policy problems help us argue for particular solutions. Indeed, ‘policy solution’ is closer to the intuitive meaning of ‘I have an idea’. Kingdon grapples with this dual role for (or meaning of) ‘ideas’ by considering how policy solutions are received within government or wider policy networks. His starting point is the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’, which implies ‘an irresistible movement that sweeps over our politics and our society, pushing aside everything that might stand in its path’. He argues that such notions are misleading because they ignore the conditions that have to be satisfied – during a brief ‘window of opportunity’ – before a policy will change significantly. Three separate ‘streams’ must come together at the same time:

Problem streamattention lurches to a policy problem. Problems are policy issues which are deemed to require attention. There are no objective indicators to determine which problems deserve attention, and perceptions of problems can change quickly. Problems get attention based on how they are ‘framed’ or defined by participants who compete for attention – using evidence to address uncertainty and persuasion to address ambiguity. In some cases, issues receive attention because of a crisis or change in the scale of the problem. Only a tiny fraction of problems receive policymaker attention. Getting attention is a major achievement which must be acted upon quickly, before attention shifts elsewhere. This might be achieved by demonstrating that a well thought out solution already exists.

Policy streama solution to that problem is available.  While attention lurches quickly from issue to issue, viable solutions involving major policy change take time to develop. Kingdon describes ideas in a ‘policy primeval soup’, evolving as they are proposed by one actor then reconsidered and modified by a large number of participants (who may have to be ‘softened up’ to new ideas). To deal with the disconnect between lurching attention and slow policy development, they develop widely-accepted solutions in anticipation of future problems, then find the right time to exploit or encourage attention to a relevant problem.

Politics streampolicymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy. They have to pay attention to the problem and be receptive to the proposed solution. They may supplement their own beliefs with their perception of the ‘national mood’ and the feedback they receive from interest groups and political parties. In some cases, only a change of government may be enough to provide that motive.

Kingdon draws on Cohen et al’s ‘garbage can’ model of policymaking in organisations. It contrasts with ‘comprehensively rational’ policymaking in which – in this order – policymakers identify problems (or their aims), bureaucracies perform a comprehensive analysis to produce various solutions (or ways to meet those aims), and policymakers select the best solution. Instead, policymaker aims and policy problems are ambiguous and bureaucrats struggle to research issues and produce viable solutions quickly. Sometimes people wait for the right time to present their ready-made solutions. Sometimes aimless policymakers just want to look busy and decisive. So, Cohen et al suggest that the problem identification, solution production, and choice are ‘relatively independent streams’. The garbage can is where a mix of problems, solutions and choices are dumped.

Kingdon applied this reasoning to the US political system, which magnifies some of these problems: many people, with different perceptions and aims are involved; and, some actors (such as the President) may be effective at raising issues up the public and government agenda but not producing solutions. Since policymakers do not have the time (or longevity) to devote to detailed policy work, they delegate it to civil servants who consult with interest groups, think tanks and other specialists to consider ideas and produce policy solutions. The groups most involved in producing solutions over the long term may struggle to get attention or buy-in from policymakers. Therefore, the likelihood of significant policy change is difficult to predict since it requires sustained and high attention, an acceptable solution and some spirit of compromise in the political system. A perception of infrequency and unpredictability may also influence behaviour: when new, major legislation looks likely to be adopted, there is a deluge of interest and a range of participants keen to jump on an idea’s bandwagon – adding further to the metaphor of the garbage can of ideas and the messy nature of politics.

Kingdon’s work developed from case studies of US federal policymaking. Compared to the ACF and punctuated equilibrium, its insights have been applied less frequently or systematically in other countries. Yet, the potential to compare messy policymaking in the US and EU is there, while Zahariadis has shown the comparative value of multiple streams analysis to identify very different experiences and windows of opportunity in countries such as the UK, France and Germany. In each case, we can identify ‘universal’ elements in the agenda-setting process:

  • Ambiguity (there are many ways to frame any policy problem);
  • Competition for attention (few problems reach the top of the agenda);
  • An imperfect selection process (new information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation);
  • Limited time (which forces people to make choices before their preferences are clear); and
  • A departure from ‘comprehensive rationality’ and a linear decision-making process – identifying problems, formulating solutions and making a choice.
  • ‘Softening’, as some issues take time to become accepted within government or policy networks.

This is a summary of a section in chapter 12 of this book.

Update 6 Jan 2015: working on a Kingdon paper with a colleague has prompted me to realise that many/ most people take MSA to mean multiple streams approach. I apologise wholeheartedly for the confusion.

Cairney and Jones (2016) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Cairney Jones 2016 MSA PSJ

Cairney Zahariadis multiple streams 2016


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy

52 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis

  1. Pingback: Connecting Research to Policy is Hard. Must Academics Do It on Their Own? - Social Science Space

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