Category Archives: 500 words

Policy in 500 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

See also the original – and now 6 years old – 1000 Words post.

This 500 Words version is a modified version of the introduction to chapter 9 in the 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy.  

UPP p147 PET box

 Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) tells a story of complex systems that are stable and dynamic:

  • Most policymaking exhibits long periods of stability, but with the ever-present potential for sudden instability.
  • Most policies stay the same for long periods. Some change very quickly and dramatically.

We can explain this dynamic with reference to bounded rationality: since policymakers cannot consider all issues at all times, they ignore most and promote relatively few to the top of their agenda.

This lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change, while intense periods of attention to some issues prompts new ways to frame and solve policy problems.

Some explanation comes from the power of participants, to (a) minimize attention and maintain an established framing, or (b) expand attention in the hope of attracting new audiences more sympathetic to new ways of thinking.

Further explanation comes from policymaking complexity, in which the scale of conflict is too large to understand, let alone control.

The original PET story

The original PET story – described in more detail in the 1000 Words version – applies two approaches – policy communities and agenda setting – to demonstrate stable relationships between interest groups and policymakers:

  • They endure when participants have built up trust and agreement – about the nature of a policy problem and how to address it – and ensure that few other actors have a legitimate role or interest in the issue.
  • They come under pressure when issues attract high policymaker attention, such as following a ‘focusing event’ or a successful attempt by some groups to ‘venue shop’ (seek influential audiences in another policymaking venue). When an issue reaches the ‘top’ of this wider political agenda it is processed in a different way: more participants become involved, and they generate more ways to look at (and seek to solve) the policy.

The key focus is the competition to frame or define a policy problem (to exercise power to reduce ambiguity). The successful definition of a policy problem as technical or humdrum ensures that issues are monopolized and considered quietly in one venue. The reframing of that issue as crucial to other institutions, or the big political issues of the day, ensures that it will be considered by many audiences and processed in more than one venue (see also Schattschneider).

The modern PET story

The modern PET story is about complex systems and attention.

Its analysis of bounded rationality and policymaker psychology remains crucial, since PET measures the consequences of the limited attention of individuals and organisations.

However, note the much greater quantification of policy change across entire political systems (see the Comparative Agendas Project).

PET shows how policy actors and organisations contribute to ‘disproportionate information processing’, in which attention to information fluctuates out of proportion to (a) the size of policy problems and (b) the information on problems available to policymakers.

It also shows that the same basic distribution of policy change – ‘hyperincremental’ in most cases, but huge in some – is present in every political system studied by the CAP (summed up by the image below)

True et al figure 6.2

See also:

5 images of the policy process

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Understanding Public Policy 2nd edition

All going well, it will be out in November 2019. We are now at the proofing stage.

I have included below the summaries of the chapters (and each chapter should also have its own entry (or multiple entries) in the 1000 Words and 500 Words series).

2nd ed cover

titlechapter 1chapter 2chapter 3chapter 4.JPG

chapter 5

chapter 6chapter 7.JPG

chapter 8

chapter 9

chapter 10

chapter 11

chapter 12

chapter 13



Filed under 1000 words, 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer, public policy

Policy in 500 Words: The advocacy coalition framework

Here is the ACF story.

People engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form advocacy coalitions with people who share their beliefs, and compete with other coalitions. The action takes place within a subsystem devoted to a policy issue, and a wider policymaking process that provides constraints and opportunities to coalitions.

The policy process contains multiple actors and levels of government. It displays a mixture of intensely politicized disputes and routine activity. There is much uncertainty about the nature and severity of policy problems. The full effects of policy may be unclear for over a decade. The ACF sums it up in the following diagram:


Policy actors use their beliefs to understand, and seek influence in, this world. Beliefs about how to interpret the cause of and solution to policy problems, and the role of government in solving them, act as a glue to bind actors together within coalitions.

If the policy issue is technical and humdrum, there may be room for routine cooperation. If the issue is highly charged, then people romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.

The outcome is often long-term policymaking stability and policy continuity because the ‘core’ beliefs of coalitions are unlikely to shift and one coalition may dominate the subsystem for long periods.

There are two main sources of change.

  1. Coalitions engage in policy learning to remain competitive and adapt to new information about policy. This process often produces minor change because coalitions learn on their own terms. They learn how to retain their coalition’s strategic advantage and use the information they deem most relevant.
  2. ‘Shocks’ affect the positions of coalitions within subsystems. Shocks are the combination of events and coalition responses. External shocks are prompted by events including the election of a new government with different ideas, or the effect of socioeconomic change. Internal shocks are prompted by policy failure. Both may prompt major change as members of one coalition question their beliefs in the light of new evidence. Or, another coalition may adapt more readily to its new policy environment and exploit events to gain competitive advantage.

The ACF began as the study of US policymaking, focusing largely on environmental issues. It has changed markedly to reflect the widening of ACF scholarship to new policy areas, political systems, and methods.

For example, the flow diagram’s reference to the political system’s long term coalition opportunity structures is largely the response to insights from comparative international studies:

  • A focus on the ‘degree of consensus needed for major policy change’ reflects applications in Europe that highlighted the important of proportional electoral systems
  • A focus on the ‘openness of the political system’ partly reflects applications to countries without free and fair elections, and/ or systems that do not allow people to come together easily as coalitions to promote policy change.

As such, like all theories in this series, the ACF discusses elements that it would treat as (a) universally applicable, such as the use of beliefs to address bounded rationality, and (b) context-specific, such as the motive and opportunity of specific people to organize collectively to translate their beliefs into policy.

See also:

The 500 and 1000 Words series

Why Advocacy Coalitions Matter and How to Think about Them

Three lessons from a comparison of fracking policy in the UK and Switzerland

Bonus material

Scottish Independence and the Devil Shift

Image source: Weible, Heikkila, Ingold, and Fischer (2016: 6)





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Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

The ‘Ecology of Games Framework’ (EG) combines insights from many approaches to analyze ‘institutional complexity’ and ‘complex institutional systems’.

The focus is on actors learning how to secure ‘mutually beneficial outcomes’, cooperating to produce and deliver agreed solutions, and bargaining within a system over which no actor has control. Therefore, it is worth reading the posts on game theory, the IAD, and SES first (especially if, like me, you associated ‘game’ with tig, then Monopoly, then The Wire).


Insights from three key approaches

EG connects Norton’s ‘ecology of games’, the IAD, and insights from complexity theory to reinforce the idea that institutional arrangements are not simple and orderly.

In simple games, we need only analyse the interaction between a small number of actors with reference to one set of self-contained rules providing clear sanctions or payoffs. In real world policymaking, many different games take place at the same time in different venues.

Some policy games may be contained within a geographical area – such as California – but there are no self-contained collective action problems:

  • Examples such as ‘biodiversity’, ‘ecology’ or ‘environmental’ policies command a collection of interdependent policies relating to issues like local planning, protected species, water management, air pollution, transport, energy use, and contributors to such policies or policy problems in other areas of government (such as public services).
  • Each contributor to policy may come from different institutions associated with many policymaking venues spread across many levels and types of government.

Consequently, many games interact with each other. The same actor might participate in multiple games subject to different rules. Further, each game produces ‘externalities’ for the others; the ‘payoffs’ to each game are connected and complicated.

A focus on ‘complex adaptive systems’ suggests that central governments do not have the resources to control – or understand fully – interaction at this frequency and scale. Rather, policymaking influences are:

  • Internal to the game, when actors (a) follow and shape the rules of each institution, and (b) learn through trial and error.
  • External to the game, when physical resources change, or central levels of government change the resources of local actors.

Insights from the wider literature

The EG brings in wider insights – from theories in the 500 and 1000 Words series – to analyse this process. Examples include:

Consequently, we have come a long way from simple assumptions about human behaviour outlined in our first post in this series.

As with the IAD, the EG emphasis is on (a) finding solutions to complex (largely environmental) policy problems, with reference to (b) initiatives consistent with self-organising systems such as ‘collaborative governance’. Like most posts in this series, it rejects a naïve attachment to a single powerful central government. Policymaking is multi-centric, and solutions to complex problems will emerge in that context.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?



Filed under 500 words, public policy

Policy in 500 Words: the Social-Ecological Systems Framework

Think of the SES framework as the combination of:

  • the IAD approach to analyzing ‘the commons’, and
  • ecological sciences approaches to ‘complex social-ecological systems’

The result is a framework that resembles CPR studies in key respects. Ostrom’s 2009 article in Science provides a visual emphasis on the interactions between ‘first-level’ concepts including users, their governance system, resource system (such as a protected park) and resource units (such as its trees):

SES Science Ostrom

It also raises similar questions, such as ‘When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert “a tragedy of the commons”’?

It answers them with reference to ‘second level’ concepts describing factors that encourage users to (a) value long term sustainability and (b) self-organize to secure this outcome. This table summarizes many of them:

SES table 7.2

Note that Ostrom describes their effect as indicative because, ‘As in most complex systems, the variables interact in a nonlinear fashion …Simple blueprint policies do not work’.

As a result, we have a super-complicated framework to help us understand an even more super-complicated world. For some, the SES framework serves to ‘diagnose’ the sustainability of social-ecological systems and explore the prospect of more effective self-organisation to manage resources. However, as with the IAD, effective use of the framework itself requires a fair amount of immersion in the language of analysis.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) and Governing the Commons

Policy in 500 Words: Ecology of Games

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: it’s time for some game theory

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Rational Choice and the IAD (the older post for the 1st edition)

Policy Concepts in 100 Words: Multi-centric Policymaking

How to Navigate Complex Policy Designs

How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?



Filed under 500 words, public policy

Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.

Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).

Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.

In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:

Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.

Example 2. ‘Epistemic violencedescribes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.

It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.

See also:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas

Evidence-informed policymaking: context is everything


Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, public policy, Storytelling

Policy in 500 words: uncertainty versus ambiguity

In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
  • Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.

Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:

  • ‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
  • ‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.

I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.

Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.

  1. Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.

Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:

A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.

In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.

Further reading:

For a longer discussion, see Fostering Evidence-informed Policy Making: Uncertainty Versus Ambiguity (PDF)

Or, if you fancy it in French: Favoriser l’élaboration de politiques publiques fondées sur des données probantes : incertitude versus ambiguïté (PDF)


The politics of evidence-based policymaking

To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty

How to communicate effectively with policymakers: combine insights from psychology and policy studies

Here is the relevant opening section in UPP:

p234 UPP ambiguity


Filed under 500 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling