Tag Archives: Punctuated equilibrium

How do we get governments to make better decisions?

This is a guest post by Chris Koski (left) and Sam Workman (right), discussing how to use insights from punctuated equilibrium theory to reform government policy making. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

Koski Workman

Many people assume that the main problem faced by governments is an information deficit. However, the opposite is true. A surfeit of information exists and institutions have a hard time managing it.  At the same time, all the information that exists in defining problems may be insufficient. Institutions need to develop a capacity to seek out better quality information too.

Institutions, from the national government, to state legislatures, to city councils – try to solve the information processing dilemma by delegating authority to smaller subgroups. Delegation increases the information processing capacity of governments by involving more actors to attend to narrower issues.

The delegation of authority is ultimately a delegation of attention. It solves the ‘flow’ problem, but also introduces new ‘filters’.  The preferences, interests, and modes of information search all influence the process. Even narrowly focused smaller organizations face limitations in their capacity to search and are subject to similar forces as the governments which created them – filters for the deluge of information and capacity limitations for information seeking.

Organizational design predisposes institutions to filter information for ideas that support status quo problem definitions – that is, definitions that existed at the time of delegation – and to seek out information based on these status quo understandings.  As a result, despite a desire to expand attention and information processing to adapt to changes in problem characteristics, most institutions look for information that supports their identity.  Institutional problem definitions stay the same even as the problems change.

Governments eventually face trade-offs between the gains made from delegating decision-making to smaller subgroups and the losses associated with coordinating the information generated by those subgroups.

Governments get stuck in the same ruts as when the delegation process started: status quo bias that doesn’t adjust with change problem conditions.  There is a sense among citizens and academics that governments make bad decisions in part because they respond to problems of today with the policies of 10 years ago.  Government solutions look like hammers in search of nails when they ought to look more like contractors or even urban planners.

Governments should not respond simply by centralizing

When institutions become stultified in their problem definitions, policymakers and citizens often misdiagnose the problem as entirely a coordination problem.  The logic here is that a small group of actors have captured policymaking and are using such capture for their own gain.  This understanding may be true, or may not, but it leads to the “centralization as savior” fallacy.  The idea here is that organizations with broader latitude will be better able to receive a wider variety of information from a broader range of sources.

There are two problems with this strategy.  First, centralization might guarantee an outcome, but at the expense of an honest problems search and, likely, at the expense of what we might call policy stability.  Second, centralization may offer the opportunity for a broader array of information to bear on policy decisions, but, in practice will rely on even narrower information filters given the number of issues to which the newly centralized policymaking forum must attend.

More delegation produces fragmentation

The alternative, more delegation, has significant coordination challenges as we find bottlenecks of attention when multiple subsystems bear on decision-points.  Also, simply delegating authority can predispose subsystems to a particular solution, which we want to avoid.

We’d propose: Adaptive governance

  • Design institutions not just to attend to problems, but to be specifically information seeking. For example, NEPA requires that all US federal decision-making regarding the environment undergo some kind of environmental assessment – this can be as simply as saying “the environmental will not be harmed” or as complex as an environmental impact statement.  At the same time, we’d suggest greater coordination of institutional actions – enhance communication across delegated units but also better feedback mechanisms to overarching institutions.
  • Institutions need to listen to the signals that their delegated units give them. When delegated institutions come to similar conclusions regarding similar problems, these are key signals to broader policymaking bodies.  Listening to signals from multiple delegated units allows for expertise to shine.  At the same time, disharmony across delegated units on the same problems is a good indicator of disharmony in information search.  Sometimes institutions respond to this disharmony by attempting to reduce participation in the policy process or cast outliers as simply outliers.  We think this is a bad idea as it exaggerates the acceptability of the status quo.
  • We propose ‘issue bundling’ which allows for issues to be less tied up by monolithic problem definitions. Policymaking institutions ought to formally direct delegated institutions to look at the same problem relying upon different expertise.  Examples here are climate change or critical infrastructure protection.  To create institutions to deal with these issues is a challenge given the wide range of information necessary to address each.  Institutions can solve the attention problems that emerge from the multiple sources by creating specific channels of information.  This allows for multiple subsystems  – e.g. Agriculture, Transportation, or Environmental Protection – to assist institutional decision-making by sorting issue specific – e.g. Climate Change – information.

Our solutions do solve fundamental problems of information processing in terms of sorting and seeking information – such problems are fundamental to humans and human-created organizations.  However, while governments may be predisposed to prioritize decisions over information, we are optimistic that our recommendations can facilitate better informed policy in the future.

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Policymaking in the UK: do you really know who is in charge and who to blame? #POLU9UK

This week, we continue with the idea of two stories of British politics. In one, the Westminster model-style story, the moral is that the centralisation of power produces clear lines of accountability: you know who is in charge and, therefore, the heroes or villains. In another, the complex government story, the world seems too messy and power too diffuse to know all the main characters.

Although some aspects of these stories are specific to the UK, they relate to some ‘universal’ questions and concepts that we can use to identify the limits to centralised power. Put simply, some rather unrealistic requirements for the Westminster story include:

  1. You know what policy is, and that it is made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.
  2. Those actors possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe.
  3. They can turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way.

If life were that simple, I wouldn’t be asking you to read the following blog posts (underlined) which complicate the hell out of our neat story:

You don’t know what policy is, and it is not only made by a small number of actors at the heart of government.

We don’t really know what government policy is. In fact, we don’t even know how to define ‘public policy’ that well. Instead, a definition like ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’ raises more issues than it settles: policy is remarkably difficult to identify and measure; it is made by many actors inside, outside, and sort of inside/outside government; the boundary between the people influencing and making policy is unclear; and, the study of policy is often about the things governments don’t do.

Actors don’t possess comprehensive knowledge about the problems and solutions they describe

It’s fairly obvious than no-one possesses all possible information about policy problems and the likely effects of proposed solutions. It’s not obvious what happens next. Classic discussions identified a tendency to produce ‘good enough’ decisions based on limited knowledge and cognitive ability, or to seek other measures of ‘good’ policy such as their ability to command widespread consensus (and no radical movement away from such policy settlements). Modern discussions offer us a wealth of discussions of the implications of ‘bounded rationality’, but three insights stand out:

  1. Policymakers pay disproportionate attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. There is great potential for punctuations in policy/ policymaking when their attention lurches, but most policy is made in networks in the absence of such attention.
  2. Policymakers combine ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ ways to make decisions with limited information. The way they frame problems limits their attention to a small number of possible solutions, and that framing can be driven by emotional/ moral choices backed up with a selective use of evidence.
  3. It is always difficult to describe this process as ‘evidence-based policymaking’ even when policymakers have sincere intentions.

Policymakers cannot turn policy intent into policy outcomes in a straightforward way

The classic way to describe straightforward policymaking is with reference to a policy cycle and its stages. This image of a cycle was cooked up by marketing companies trying to sell hula hoops to policymakers and interest groups in the 1960s. It is not an accurate description of policymaking (but spirographs are harder to sell).

Instead, for decades we have tried to explain the ‘gap’ between the high expectations of policymakers and the actual – often dispiriting- outcomes, or wonder if policymakers really have such high expectations for success in the first place (or if they prefer to focus on how to present any of their actions as successful). This was a key topic before the rise of ‘multi-level governance’ and the often-deliberate separation of central government action and expected outcomes.

The upshot: in Westminster systems do you really know who is in charge and who to blame?

These factors combine to generate a sense of complex government in which it is difficult to identify policy, link it to the ‘rational’ processes associated with a small number of powerful actors at the heart of government, and trace a direct line from their choices to outcomes.

Of course, we should not go too far to argue that governments don’t make a difference. Indeed, many ministers have demonstrated the amount of damage (or good) you can do in government. Still, let’s not assume that the policy process in the UK is anything like the story we tell about Westminster.

Seminar questions

In the seminar, I’ll ask you reflect on these limits and what they tell us about the ‘Westminster model’. We’ll start by me asking you to summarise the main points of this post. Then, we’ll get into some examples in British politics.

Try to think of some relevant examples of what happens when, for example, minsters seem to make quick and emotional (rather than ‘evidence based’) decisions: what happens next? Some obvious examples – based on our discussions so far – include the Iraq War and the ‘troubled families’ agenda, but please bring some examples that interest you.

In group work, I’ll invite you to answer these questions:

  1. What is UK government policy on X? Pick a topic and tell me what government policy is.
  2. How did the government choose policy? When you decide what government policy is, describe how it made its choices.
  3. What were the outcomes? When you identify government policy choices, describe their impact on policy outcomes.

I’ll also ask you to identify at least one blatant lie in this blog post.

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Policy bubbles and emotional policymaking

I am at a workshop today on policy ‘bubbles’, or (real and perceived) disproportionate policy responses. For Moshe Maor, a bubble describes an over-reaction to a problem, and a negative policy bubble describes under-reaction.

For Maor, this focus on bubbles is one way into our increasing focus on the role of emotion in policymaking: we pay disproportionate attention to problems, and try to solve some but not others, based on the ways in which we engage emotionally with information.

This focus on psychology is, I think, gaining a lot of traction in political science now, and I think it is crucial to explaining, for example, processes associated with ‘evidence-based policymaking’.

In taking this agenda forward, there remain some outstanding issues:

How much of the psychology literature is already reflected in policy studies? For example, see the social construction of target populations (emotion-driven treatment of social groups), ACF (on loss aversion and the devil shift), and the NPF (telling stories to exploit cognitive biases).

What insights remain untapped from key fields such as organisational psychology? I’ll say more about this in a forthcoming post.

How can we study the psychology of policymaking? Most policy theory begins with some reference to bounded rationality, including PET and the identification of disproportionate information processing (policymakers pay disproportionate attention to some issues and ignore the rest). It is largely deductive then empirical: we make some logical steps about the implications of bounded rationality, then study the process in that light.

Similarly, I think most studies of emotion/ policymaking take insights from psychology (e.g. people value losses more than gains, or they make moral judgements then seek evidence to justify them) and then apply them indirectly to policymaking (asking, for example, what is the effect of prospect theory on the behaviour of coalitions).

Can we do more, by studying more directly the actions of policymakers rather than merely interpreting their actions? The problem, of course, is that few policymakers may be keen on engaging in the types of study (e.g. experiments with control groups) that psychologists have used to establish things like fluency effects.

How does policymaker psychology fit into broader explanations of policymaking? The psychology of policymakers is one part of the story. The other is the system or environment in which they operate. So, we have some choices to make about future studies. Some might ‘zoom in’ to focus on emotionally-driven policymaking in key actors, perhaps at the centre of government.

Others may ‘zoom out’. The latter may involve ascribing the same basic thought processes to a large number of actors, examining that process at a relatively abstract level. This is the necessary consequence of trying to account for the effects of a very large number of actors, and to take into account the role of a policymaking environment, only some of which is in the control of policymakers.

Can we really demonstrate disproportionate policy action? The idea of a proportionate policy response interests me, because I think it is always in the eye of the beholder. We make moral and other personal evaluative statements when we describe a proportionate solution in relation to the size of the problem.

For example, in tobacco policy, a well-established argument in public health is that a proportionate policy response to the health effects of smoking and passive smoking (a) has been 20-30 years behind the evidence in ‘leading countries’, and (b) has yet to happen in ‘laggard’ countries. The counterargument is that the identification of a problem does not necessitate the favoured public health solution (comprehensive tobacco control, towards the ‘endgame’ of zero smoking) because it involves major limits to personal liberties and choice.

Is emotion-driven policymaking necessarily a bad thing?

[excerpt from my 2014 PSA paper ] This is partly the focus of Alter and Oppenheimer (2008) when they argue that policymakers spend disproportionate amounts of money on risks with which they are familiar, at the expense of spending money on things with more negative effects, producing a ‘dramatic misallocation of funds’. They draw on Sunstein (2002), who suggests that emotional bases for attention to environmental problems from the 1970s prompted many regulations to be disproportionate to the risk involved. Further, Slovic’s work suggest that people’s feelings towards risk may even be influenced by the way in which it is described, for example as a percentage versus a 1 in X probability (Slovic, P. 2010: xxii).

Haidt (2001: 815) argues that a focus on psychology can be used to improve policymaking: the identification of the ‘intuitive basis of moral judgment’ can be used to help policymakers ‘avoid mistakes’ or allow people to develop ‘programs’ or an ‘environment’ to ‘improve the quality of moral judgment and behavior’. Similarly, Alter and Oppenheimer (2009: 232) worry about medical and legal judgements swayed by fluid diagnoses and stories.

These studies compare with arguments focusing on the positive role of emotions of decision-making, either individually (see Constantinescu, 2012, drawing on Frank, 1988 and Elster, 2000 on the decisions of judges) or as part of social groups, with emotional responses providing useful information in the form of social cues (Van Kleef et al, 2010).

Policy theory does not shy away from these issues. For example, Schneider and Ingram (2014) argue that the outcomes of social construction are often dysfunctional and not based on a well-reasoned, goal-oriented strategy: ‘Studies have shown that rules, tools, rationales and implementation structures inspired by social constructions send dysfunctional messages and poor choices may hamper the effectiveness of policy’. However, part of the value of policy theory is to show that policy results from the interaction of large numbers of people and institutions. So, the poor actions of one policymaker would not be the issue; we need to know more about the cumulative effect of individual emotional decision making in collective decision-making – not only in discrete organisations, but also networks and systems.

And finally: if it is a bad thing, should we do something about it?

Our choice is to find it interesting then go home (this might appeal to the academics) or try to limit the damage/ maximise the benefits of policymaker psychology to policy and society (this might appeal to practitioners). There is no obvious way to do something, though, is there?


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

Policy in 500 Words: how much does policy change?

You should get the impression from 1000 words that most policy changes are small or not radically different from the past: Lindblom identifies incrementalism; punctuated equilibrium  highlights a huge number of small changes and small number of huge changes; the ACF compares routine learning by a dominant coalition to a ‘shock’ which prompts new subsystem and policy dynamics; and multiple streams identifies the conditions (rarely met) for major change.

Yet, I just gave you the impression that we don’t know how to define policy. If we can’t define it well, how can we measure it well enough to come to this conclusion so consistently?

Why is the measurement of policy change important?

We miss a lot if we equate policy with statements rather than outputs/ outcomes. We also miss a lot if we equate policy change with the most visible outputs such as legislation. I list 16 different policy instruments, although they tend to be grouped into smaller categories: focusing on regulation (including legislation) and resources (money and staffing) to accentuate the power at policymaker’s disposal; or regulatory/ distributive/ redistributive to suggest that some policy measures are more difficult to ‘sell’ than others.

We also give a limited picture if we equate change with outputs rather than outcomes, since a key insight from policy studies is that there is generally a gap between policymaker expectations and the actual result.

What are the key issues in measurement?

So, as in defining policy change, we need to make choices about what counts as policy in this instance to measure how much it has changed. For example, I have (a) written on one output as a key exemplar of policy change –  legislation to ban smoking in public places for Scotland, England/ Wales, the UK, and (almost) EU – to show that a government is signalling major changes to come, but also (b) situated that policy instrument within a much broader discussion – of many tobacco policies in the UK and across the globe – to examine the extent to which it is already consistent with a well-established direction of travel.

To make such choices we need to consider:

  • Breadth (to give the ‘big picture’) versus depth (to note important details forensically)
  • How much we expect policy to change, given the size of the problem (a big feature in public health studies, which criticise government inaction)
  • How radical policy change looks from the ‘top’ (at the point of central government choice) or the ‘bottom’ (longer-term delivery of policy by other bodies)
  • What policies mean (what problem were policymakers trying to solve?)
  • How consistent ‘policy’ seems when made of often-contradictory instruments

How do we solve the problem?

The problem is that we can produce very different accounts of policy change from the same pool of evidence, by accentuating some measures and ignoring others, or putting more faith in some data more than others (e.g. during interviews).

500 words p30 UPP

Sometimes, my preferred solution is to compare more than one narrative of policy change. Another is simply to ‘show your work’.

Take home message for students: ‘show your work’ means explaining your logical process and step-by-step choices. Don’t just write that it is difficult to define policy and measure change. Instead, explain how you assess policy change in one important way, why you chose this way, and shine a light on the payoffs to your approach. Read up on how other scholars do it, to learn good practice and how to make your results comparable to theirs. Indeed, part of the benefit of using an established theory, to guide our analysis, is that we can engage in research systematically as a group.


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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.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy