Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Analysis: A New Research Agenda?

It is the 30 year anniversary of Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. The book’s influence can be measured by its citations (over 12000), but I wonder about its broader influence. For example, is Kingdon’s analysis used to inform policy theory as a whole, or one part of it? Is it used to structure research and help explain the results, or merely remembered fondly as the source of a great metaphor?

In a new paper, I explore this question in three ways:

  1. Outlining its key tenets, focusing on the extent to which multiple streams analysis contains ‘universal’ insights or insights specific to the US federal system. This part is based on a blog post, part of a larger series summarizing policy theories and concepts.
  2. Identifying its place in the broader literature, focusing in particular on its contribution to ‘evolutionary’ theory. This part is based on another blog post and article on evolutionary policy theory.
  3. Examining 41 serious articles on MSA (i.e. they don’t just nod to Kingdon), to try to identify the literature’s development, particularly in the last 10 years. Most of the articles focus on the US and EU, and the sample is split between national/ international (28) and subnational (13).

Preliminary categories

  1. Conceptual revisions to reflect the object of study (14). The biggest category reflects the rising application of MSA to non-US policymaking (one of the most studied arenas in the world) and/ or non-national jurisdictions. Some studies overlap between, for example, EU and subnational studies. Six focus on the EU (3) or member states within the EU (3).
  2. Straightforward applications as part of multiple-theory approaches, or case studies which use MSA as a part of a broad sweep of the literature (7).   The case studies make reference to the MSA as one of several relevant theories, but with Kingdon’s model at centre stage, or providing a key insight.
  3. Straightforward ‘replications’ with no other theories mentioned (5). A case study uses the MSA to structure and help explain policy change in a detailed case study, without challenging Kingdon’s analysis or suggesting conceptual revision.
  4. Major conceptual revisions (5) Cases in which there is so much conceptual revision that the MSA becomes difficult to compare with the new approach.
  5. Direct theory development and hypothesis testing (4).
  6. Accounts for practitioners, advocating reform or providing advice on the right time to propose solutions (3).
  7. Work which cites or engages superficially with MSA (3).

Overall, we may get the sense of a generally self-contained literature, in which case study authors either: do not speak to the wider literature, present models that are difficult to compare with others; or use MSA primarily to focus on new objects of study.

However, as a group, they raise important issues on comparative policymaking, and some new conceptual issues may arise. For example, two argue that, in the EU, ‘ambiguity’ extends from issue framing to not knowing which directorate is responsible for policy – opening up the potential for entrepreneurs to assert a primary jurisdiction or venue shop.

Six studies (4 of the EU or member states in the EU, and 2 of US states), focus on distinctive ‘policy streams’ (where policy solutions are developed), reflecting the importance of policy diffusion or transfer. They highlight the role of a federal or supranational body, or a transnational policy community, at the centre of the policy stream, suggesting that many solutions originate outside the political system under study. In these cases, the idea of a ‘policy transfer window’ could help combine two literatures: MSA, which originally did not recognise this external role, and the transfer literature, which often focuses on how rather than why governments import policies. Studies can combine a focus on the role of external organisations or networks in the production of the ideas in the policy stream, and the need for a shift of attention combined with some receptivity to import the policy idea, before transfer takes place.

Three studies of subnational policymaking suggest that a policy entrepreneur can be more effective at a smaller scale of government – and more able to influence or direct all three streams. They highlight the potential for a hypothesis along the lines of: ‘the three streams are more independent at the federal or supranational level; at local levels, they are more open to influence or coordination by exceptional individuals’.

Three studies focus on little-studied areas. Zhu examines the extent to which a policy theory derived from studies of the US can be used to explain policymaking in China. The case demonstrates that, while some ‘universal’ concepts travel well, they do not tell us much about the policy processes of other countries.

Such discussions might prompt us to revisit some key issues in Kingdon’s research:

  • How large are policy windows? Do they open up to allow specific policy solutions, or major reform programmes?
  • How specific are the solutions that couple with problems and politics? Several studies suggest that policy change can happen when only a vague policy solution has been produced and adopted. Consequently, a further process of ‘coupling’ may be required (perhaps at another at level of government) when a more detailed solution must be found. How can we conceptualise the process? Do we seek to conceptualise policymaking going on simultaneously in multiple arenas, or identify a series of policy windows in different jurisdictions as key decisions are made at different points?

I discuss these issues in greater depth in this paper, which combines an 8000 word discussion with a very generous 5000 word annex: Cairney Kingdon Singapore 9.10.14 final . It’s part of a 2-day Kingdon workshop organised by Michael Howlett. That’s why I’m going to Singapore.


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