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).
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)
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.
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.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.