Tag Archives: Baumgartner

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

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Evolution

(podcast download)

Evolutionary theory is prevalent in policymaking studies and it can be useful if we overcome some initial barriers. First, ‘evolution’ comes with a lot of baggage when we move from a discussion of animals to people. We can blame ‘social-Darwinism’ for the racist/ sexist idea that some people are more evolved than others.

Second, the word ‘evolution’ is used frequently in daily life, and academic studies, without a clear sense of its meaning. When it is used loosely in everyday language, it refers to a long term, gradual process of change. However, evolution can also refer to quick, dramatic change; the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ is that long spells of stability and gradual change are interrupted by relatively short but profound bursts of instability. When we get into the details of studies, there are other sources of potential confusion about, for example, the nature of evolution (does it refer to advancement as well as change?) and the nature of ‘selection’ (do species simply respond blindly to their environments or help create them?).

This sort of confusion can be found in the study of public policy where evolution can refer to a wide range of things, including:

  • the cumulative, long-term development of policy solutions;
  • major disruptions in the way that policy makers think about, and try to solve, policy problems;
  • the maintenance or radical reform of policy-making institutions;
  • ‘emergent’ behaviour within complex systems
  • the trial-and-error strategies adopted by actors, such as policy entrepreneurs, when adapting to their environment;
  • the coming together of multiple factors to create the conditions for major policy change (which can be a creative, ‘window of opportunity’ style process, or a destructive, failure-related ‘perfect storm’ style process).

The most prominent theories of politics and policymaking draw on references to evolution in different ways. For example:

Multiple Streams Analysis (Kingdon). Although policymaker attention may lurch from one problem to another, problems will not be addressed until policy solutions have evolved sufficiently within a policy community and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt them. ‘Evolution’ and the ‘policy primeval soup’ describe the slow progress of an idea towards acceptability within the policy community.

Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (Baumgartner and Jones). ‘Incremental’ policy change in most cases is accompanied by ‘seismic’ change in a small number of cases – an outcome consistent with ‘power laws’ found in the natural and social worlds. Kingdon’s picture of slow progress producing partial mutations is replaced by Baumgartner and Jones’ fast, disruptive, pure mutation.

Complexity theory. People, institutions and their environments are interacting constantly to produce rather unpredictable outcomes (or outcomes that may ‘emerge’ locally, in the absence of central control). This might be broken down into three steps:

  • Institutions, as sets of rules and norms, represent ways for people to retain certain ideas and encourage particular forms of behaviours.
  • Complex systems represent (partly) a large number of overlapping and often interdependent institutions.
  • New behaviours and rules arise from the interaction between multiple institutions and the actors involved.

In other words, different ‘worlds’ are in constant collision, producing new ways of thinking and behaviour that ‘emerge’ from these interactions. They are then passed down through the generations, but in an imperfect way, allowing new forms of thinking and behaviour to emerge.

To describe these processes as ‘evolutionary’, we should use the language of evolution – variation, selection and retention – to describe and explain outcomes. The idea in the natural world is that certain beings (including humans) want to do at least two things: (1) pass on their genes; (2) cooperate with others to secure resources and share them out to their kith and kin. In the political world, the equivalent is passing on ‘memes’ (as described in the 70s by Richard Dawkins) – the ideas (beliefs, ways of thinking) that we use to understand the world and act within it:

  • ‘Variation’ refers to the different rules adopted by different social groups to foster the collective action required to survive.
  • ‘Selection’ describes the interaction between people and their environments; particular environments may provide an advantage to some groups over others and encourage certain behaviours (or, at least, some groups may respond by adapting their behaviour to their environment).
  • ‘Retention’ describes the ways in which people pass on their genes (memes) to ensure the reproduction of their established rules (we might call them ‘institutions’).

The distinctive aspect of applying evolutionary theory to policymaking relates to the idea of passing on memes through the generations. In nature, we think of passing on genes through the generations as a process that takes hundreds, thousands or millions of years. Passing on memes through the ‘policy generations’ is more like the study of fruit flies (months), viruses or bacteria (days or weeks). Ways of thinking, and emerging behaviour, change constantly as people interact with each other, articulating different beliefs and rules and producing new forms of thinking, rules and behaviour. Big jumps in ways of thinking may be associated with generational shifts, but that can take place, for example, as one generation of scientists retires (as described by Kuhn) or, more quickly still, one generation of experts is replaced (within government circles) by another (as described by Hall).

I have discussed in other ‘1000 words’ posts what happens when theories, derived from cases studies of US politics, are applied to other countries and cases. ‘Evolutionary theory’ is more difficult to track, because it is a body of disparate work, loosely related to work in natural science, applied in a non-coordinated way. The same can be said for studies of complexity theory.

To read more, see ‘What is evolutionary theory and how does it inform policy studies?’ PDF, weblink or Green.


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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

cloud punctuated equilibrium

See also What is Policy? and the Policy concepts in 1000 words series

(podcast download)

Policymaking can appear stable for long periods, only to be destabilised profoundly. Most policies can stay the same for long periods while a small number change quickly and dramatically. Or, policy change in one issue may be minimal for decades, followed by profound change which sets policy on an entirely new direction. The aim of Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory is to measure and explain these long periods of policymaking stability, and policy continuity, disrupted by short but intense periods of instability and change. The key concepts are:

Bounded rationality. Policymakers cannot consider all problems and their solutions at all times. For example, government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. They ignore most and promote few to the top of their agenda.

Disproportionate attention. Policymakers often ignore issues or pay them an unusual amount of attention. The lack of attention to most issues helps explain why most policies may not change. Intense periods of attention to some issues may prompt new ways to understand and seek to solve old problems.

Power and agenda setting. Some groups try to maintain their privileged position by minimizing attention to the policy solutions which benefit them. Others seek to expand attention, to encourage new audiences and participants, to generate debate and new action.

Framing. Groups compete to influence how a problem is framed (understood, defined, categorized and measured) and therefore solved by policymakers. For example, it may be framed as a problem that has largely been solved, leaving the technical details of implementation to experts, or a crisis which should generate widespread attention and immediate action.

Policy monopolies. Groups may enjoy a ‘monopoly of understanding’ when policymakers accept their preferred way to frame an issue for long periods, perhaps even taking it for granted. This monopoly may be ‘institutionalised’ when rules are created and resources devoted to solving the policy problem on those terms.

Venue shopping. To challenge a monopoly in one venue (such as the executive, or one type of government at a particular level), groups may seek an audience in another (such as the legislature, the courts, or another type or level of government).

In Agendas and Instability (1993; 2009), Baumgartner and Jones, use a case study approach to examine these processes in detail. For example, in postwar US nuclear power, they identify a period of major public attention, focused on the pressing need to solve a policy problem, followed by minimal attention – for decades – when the problem appeared to be solved. The government inspired public enthusiasm for nuclear power as a solution to several problems – including the need to reduce energy bills, minimise dependence on other countries for oil, reduce air pollution, and boost employment and economic activity. This positive image, and general sense that the policy problem was solved, supported the formation of a post-war policy monopoly involving the experts implementing policy. Public, media and most government attention fell and the details of policy were left to certain (mainly private sector) experts, federal agencies and congressional committees. The monopoly was only challenged in the 1970s following environmental activist and scientific concern about nuclear safety. Groups used this new, negative, portrayal of the nuclear solution to generate concerned interest in new venues, including the courts, congressional committees and, particularly following a major accident at Three Mile Island, the public. The policy monopoly – the way in which nuclear power was framed, and the institutions established to implement policy – was destroyed.  Then, a new, negative, image became dominant for decades – and a post-war policy of power plant expansion was replaced by a moratorium and increased regulation. Only recently has the resurgence of nuclear power become a serious possibility.

In The Politics of Attention (2005), Jones and Baumgartner’s focus shifts to more general observations of selective attention (they highlight over ‘400,000 observations collected as part of the Policy Agendas Project’). Policymakers are unwilling to focus on certain issues for ideological and pragmatic reasons (e.g. some solutions may be too unpopular to consider; there is an established view within government about how to address the issue). They are also unable to pay attention because the focus on one issue means ignoring 99 others. Change may require a critical mass of attention to overcome the conservatism of decision makers and shift their attention from competing problems. If levels of external pressure reach this tipping point, they can cause major and infrequent punctuations rather than smaller and more regular policy changes: the burst in attention and communication becomes self-reinforcing; new approaches are considered; different ‘weights’ are applied to the same types of information; policy is driven ideologically by new actors; and/or the ‘new’ issue sparks off new conflicts between political actors. Information processing is therefore characterized by ‘stasis interrupted by bursts of innovation’ and policy responses are unpredictable and episodic rather than continuous. One key example is the annual budget process which, like many other examples of political activity, does not display a ‘normal distribution’ of cases. Instead, it is characterized by a huge number of minimal changes and a small number of huge changes.

The trend in Baumgartner and Jones’ work has been to move from the specific to the ‘universal’; from some cases in one country to many cases in many countries. Their initial assumption was that many of the processes they observed in case studies resulted from the peculiarities of the US system. Yet, concepts such as bounded rationality, selective attention, policy monopolies and venue shopping should be applicable to all political systems. Punctuated equilibrium theory helps us to balance a focus on the specific and the general. We can use these concepts to generate empirical questions about why the policymakers, institutions and venues of specific political systems prompt particular problems and solutions to be addressed and others to be ignored. We can also use them to identify the same overall patterns – based on a mixture of stasis, stability and continuity disrupted by innovation, instability, and change – in many systems.

To read more, click here to get a Green Access version of chapter 9 of this book discussed here.


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