Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

When you do a PhD in policymaking, it is likely that you have to engage significantly with the literature on policy theory. This often prompts bursts of enthusiasm, when some theories seem to be spot on, and periods of frustration, when theories seem to be deficient in some way. For example, they might only explain one part of the ‘policy process’ when you want to explain it all, or they are difficult to operationalise and apply to specific cases. This may be a particular problem for PhDs focused primarily on a substantive case study. You will find that the case study is too complicated to be explained fully by a relatively simple theory designed to be applied across a range of cases. You may then think about what to do, focusing on two main possibilities:

First, should I propose my own theory, which takes insights from other theories but puts them together in a new way, perhaps with a new terminology? My advice is: no (or not unless you are convinced that you are a genius, destined to become the new Sabatier, Kingdon, Ostrom, Baumgartner or Jones). Don’t confuse a better explanation for your case with a better overall explanation. Your theory is not backed up in the same way by multiple applications and long term refinement.

Second, should I use the insights from a range of established policy theories to inform my case study? My advice is: yes, but be careful. Read this Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories. Then, consider what you are trying to do. In most cases, your aim is to account for a significant part of the policy process. Tanya Heikkila and I describe what that might entail. In Theories of the Policy Process 3rd ed.  we identify (with a lot of input from Chris Weible) what we think are the main elements of the policy process that a theory or case should cover:

  1. “Actors making choices.  We need to simplify a policymaking world which may include thousands of people, into a set of categories and/ or discussion of the key actors involved. Actors can be individuals or collectives, and collectives can range from private companies to interest groups to governments bodies. We also need to account for the ways in which people act; their calculations and motivations. For example, most theories use ‘bounded rationality’ as a springboard for explanation, while others focus on motivations such as beliefs.
  2. Institutions. These are the rules, norms, practices and relationships that influence individual and collective behaviour.  The choices of actors is explained to some extent by their understanding of, and adherence to, such rules. Those rules can be formal and widely understood, such as when enshrined in law or a constitution. Or, they can be informal and only understood in particular organisations. Policies can be considered a subset of the broad concept of institutions, but institutions at one level (e.g. constitutional rules) can also shape the policymaking activities or decisions at another level (e.g. legislation or regulation). Similarly, institutions can establish the types of venues where policy decisions are made and the rules that allow particular types of actors or information and ideas to enter into the policy process.
  3. Networks or subsystems. These are the relationships between actors responsible for policy decisions and the ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups with which they consult and negotiate.  Senior policymakers delegate responsibility for policy making to bureaucrats, who seek information and advice from groups. Groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government or other collective choice processes. It is through these networks where collective action often emerges in policy processes.  Many theories describe a process in which groups exchange information for access to, and potential influence within, government. Bureaucracies and other public bodies may have particular operating procedures that favour particular sources of evidence and some participants over others.
  4. Ideas. This is a broad term to describe beliefs, or ways of thinking, and the extent to which they are shared within groups, organisations, networks and political systems. It can refer to two intertwined processes. First, shared ideas (knowledge, world views, language) appear to structure political activity when they are almost taken for granted or rarely questioned – for example, as core beliefs, paradigms and monopolies of understanding. Second, new ideas or ways of thinking can be used to prompt actors to rethink their beliefs to some extent – such as when a proposed new solution challenges the way that a problem is framed or understood, and therefore how much attention it receives and how it is solved. So, for example, we may identify relative stability when shared ideas are not questioned and instability when different groups with different beliefs interact.
  5. Policy Context. This is a broad category to describe the extent to which a policymaker’s environment is in her control. It can refer to the often-changing policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems and deciding how to address them, such as a political system’s: geography, biophysical and demographic profile; economy; and, mass attitudes and behaviour.  It can also refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, institutions and programs – when they enter office.
  6. Events. Events can be routine and anticipated, such as the elections which produce limited change or introduce new actors with different ideas about policy problems and solutions. Or, they can be unanticipated incidents, including social or natural crises, or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. Their unpredictability makes them difficult to theorise, and they can often effectively be treated as ‘error’, or as external factors providing an additional source of explanation to a policy theory. Or, they can be incorporated within theories which focus on how actors interpret and respond to events. To some extent, an event is only significant if actors within political systems pay attention to them”.

From there, we can consider how each theory accounts for the nature of these elements, and their interaction, to explain policy dynamics and outcomes. You can find summaries of many of these relevant theories here: and a copy of the chapter here: Cairney and Heikkila 2014

For what it’s worth, when I co-authored the book Global Tobacco Control (with Studlar and Mamudu), we had chapters on the role of policy theory but structured the book according to those elements of the policy process, not specific theories. I’m not saying that you should take this simple approach. Rather, I am asking you to think about, and explain, why yours is better.


Filed under 1000 words, Academic innovation or navel gazing, agenda setting, public policy

8 responses to “Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

  1. Pingback: Where are the Political Parties in Policy Theory? | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

  2. Pingback: Journal Article Acceptance After 5 Rejections and 18+ months | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: The Psychology of Policymaking | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  4. Pingback: Phd Chat: The PhD as a record of research training – not a perfect achievement | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  5. Thank you. I find that to be very succinct and helpful clarity on the main elements of main elements of the policy process that a theory or case should cover. it is a great guide to have for setting out on the policy analysis journey. Something which i am doing as a 2nd year part-time PhD student ( working full time)!

  6. Pingback: PhD Students: research is hard and it’s OK to simplify | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  7. Pingback: How not to write a public policy article (combining theory and empirical study)* | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  8. Pingback: Research design: Case studies and comparative research | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s