Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

Cairney jones psj pic

John Kingdon published his Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies in 1984. What has happened since then? Put simply, it is now a classic text, and it took off in a way that Kingdon did not expect. Put less simply, it contributed to the intellectual development of policy theory and inspired a huge number of studies under the banner of ‘multiple streams analysis’ (or the ‘multiple streams approach’, MSA).

In our PSJ article, Michael Jones and I sum up this theoretical and empirical contribution and give some advice about how to produce effective MSA analysis.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 1. ‘Universal’ concepts.

Kingdon identifies many elements of the policy process that we describe as ‘universal’ because they are abstract enough to apply to any case study.

  1. Ambiguity and competition for attention.
  • There are many ways to understand and frame any policy problem, but the policy agenda can often be dominated by one ‘frame’.
  • There are many problems to solve, but few reach the top of the policy agenda.
  • There are many possible solutions to problems, but very few gain attention and even fewer gain support.
  1. Decision-making processes are neither ‘comprehensively rational’ nor ‘linear’.
  • New information is difficult to gather and subject to manipulation.
  • Actors have limited resources such as time and cognitive ability. This limitation forces people to make choices before they have considered all possibilities and made sure that their preferences are clear.
  • The policy process does not follow a policy cycle with ordered stages, in which (i) a policymaker identifies a problem, (ii) a bureaucracy produces many possible solutions, and (iii) the policymaker selects the best solution according to her aims and values.

These ‘universal’ insights underpin MSA’s specific contribution, in which Kingdon draws on the ‘garbage can model’ to suggest that we think of these three ‘stages’ (metaphorically) as independent streams which must come together at the same time, during a ‘window of opportunity’ before any major policy change will take place:

  1. Problem stream – attention lurches to a policy problem.
  2. Policy stream – a solution to that problem is available.
  3. Politics stream – policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn it into policy.

MSA’s intellectual contribution: 2. New theories and perspectives.

Let’s take one example of Kingdon’s influence: on the early development of punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). In their own ways, MSA and PET are both ‘evolutionary’ theories, although they identify different kinds of evolutionary metaphors or processes, and present somewhat different implications:

  • Kingdon uses the evolutionary metaphor partly to help explain slow and gradual policy development despite lurches of attention and the importance of windows of opportunity. Note the importance of the idea of ‘feasibility’ and ‘softening’, as potential policy solutions emerge from the ‘policy primeval soup’. Kingdon is describing the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community, which challenges the notion that policies will change whenever attention lurches to a new problem. On the contrary, a feasible solution must exist, and these solutions take a lot of time to become both technically and politically feasible, before policymakers develop the motive and opportunity to adopt them.
  • Baumgartner and Jones identify the conditions under which Kingdon’s picture of slow progress, producing ‘partial mutations’ should be replaced by their identification of fast, disruptive, ‘pure mutation’. For example, major ‘policy punctuations’ may occur when issues break out of one policymaking ‘venue’. In such cases, more radical change may be acceptable to the policymakers – in other venues – that are less committed to existing policies and, therefore, less likely to select a policy solution only when it has been ‘softened’.

Such examples (explored in more depth in our article, and in my article on evolutionary policy theory) highlight the potential to trace the long term intellectual development of policy theory back to influential scholars such as Kingdon.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 1. How useful is the metaphor?

Michael and I identify a blessing and a curse, related to two aspects of Kingdon’s original work:

  1. The barriers to entry are low. If you are looking for an easy way into policy theory, you can read some of Kingdon’s book and feel you have gained some insight.
  2. The metaphor is flexible. You don’t have to learn a huge codebook or set of rules before you dive into empirical analysis.

The blessing is that both factors allow a lot of material to be produced in diverse and perhaps innovative ways. The curse is that it is difficult to see the accumulated results from all that effort. If the MSA is there to help explain one case, and one case only, then all is well. If we want more – to compare a lot of cases in a meaningful way – we have a problem.

MSA’s empirical contribution: 2. How have other scholars used the metaphor?

Michael Jones and his colleagues identified a huge number of MSA studies: over 300 applications, in over 40 countries, in 10 years. However, they also identify a high proportion of theoretical superficiality: scholars mention Kingdon, but do not go into much detail on the meaning of key MSA concepts, or explain how they used those concepts in a meaningful way to explain policy or policymaking.

Michael and I zoomed in to focus on the ‘state of the art’, to see how the best studies used MSA. We found some interesting work, particularly in studies which extended Kingdon’s original focus on the US federal government (in the 1980s) to subnational and supranational studies, and used MSA to explain developments in many other countries. The best work identified how the MSA related to wider policy theory discussions and/or how we might adapt MSA to deal with new cases. However, we also found a lot of applications which made cursory reference to theory or the MSA literature, or studies which used MSA largely as a way to identify their own models.

It all adds up to a lot of activity but it is difficult to know how to sum up its value. The flexibility of the MSA has allowed people to take it in all sorts of directions, but also to use it in a way that is difficult to relate to Kingdon’s original study or important new developments (put forward by scholars such as Zahariadis).

Where do we go from here? Some simple rules for you to consider.

So, we propose three simple rules to help maintain MSA flexibility but allow us to accumulate empirical insights or encourage conceptual development: demonstrate proficiency with MSA; speak to MSA; and, speak to broader policy research.

In other words, a lot has been written about MSA and policy theory since 1984. The world has changed, and so too have the ways in which we describe it. So, put simply, it would be weird if people continued to produce scholarly research based simply on one book written in the 80s and little else (you might be surprised about how much of this approach we found, and how few people explained MSA concepts before presenting their empirical analysis).

We don’t call for a set of rigid rules to allow systematic comparison (although I really like the suggestion by a colleague, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, that we have become the ‘multiple streams Taliban’). Instead, at the very least, we encourage people not to submit Kingdon-inspired articles for review until they have read and digested a lot of the MSA literature. That way, we’ll be able to go beyond the sense that we are all using the same conceptual descriptions without knowing if we mean the same thing or if my results can be compared usefully with yours.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

5 responses to “Whatever happened to multiple streams analysis?

  1. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multiple Streams Analysis | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Can anyone use the ‘tools’ of policy analysis? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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

  4. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Kingdonian analysis/MSA has been a key element of my work in political ecology. Some excellent pieces by Paul Cairney that I will be reblogging, starting with this one.

  5. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Another excellent post on Kingdon’s “multiple streams model” of policy making.

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