Policy can be defined as a deliberative action (or no action) undertaken by the government to achieve a desired end (Dye, 1987, p. 1). Underlying this generally accepted definition is the intuitive notion that policy is a solution-oriented response to problems in the societal system. But if policies are reactions to social problems, prior to action policymakers must determine what the most pressing issues are that deserve government attention. Policymakers are not only pushed by various interest groups, think tanks, and other organized constituents to pay attention to different issues, but are also in disagreement among each other regarding which issues merit space on the agenda (Dery, 2000, p. 39). The question therefore is: Who decides what a problem is and if it deserves government attention? And more importantly, how does policy agenda change and what role do policy actors play in this context?
This essay attempts to find an answer to these questions. It aims to explain why, for instance, child care in the US suddenly moved from relative obscurity to the government agenda (Nelson, 1984). Further, what was decisive for education to become a highly important agenda item in the same period when child care became high-profile? This essay will show that neither the pluralist, nor the iron triangle framework is able to provide a convincing explanation. It will argue that agenda setting is a political power struggle in a highly complex and dynamic process where the way an issue is defined and perceived by the public matters most for agenda changes. It will show that the subsystem theory, the advocacy coalition framework, and the punctuated equilibrium model do all contribute to our understanding of how issues move up and down the agenda. However, it is, as the paper argues, Kingdon's policy window and three streams building up on the other theories that has the most explanatory power and is the most rigorous theoretical framework.
The essay will first show in what way agenda setting is about political power. Secondly, it will turn to the early agenda-literature, the pluralist and the iron triangle frameworks. Thirdly, the essay will introduce Heclo's subsystems theory. In the fourth step, it will present Sabatier's Advocacy Coalition framework. After examining what Baumgartner and Jones put forward as "punctuated equilibrium", it will discuss Kingdon's policy window model and how it incorporates theoretical elements of the previous frameworks. In the end, the paper will give a conclusion.
The reader should note that for the purpose of not overrunning the scope of the essay, it will delve into the theories in so far as it suffices to understand agenda setting. Most of the theories at hand do not solely address the question of agenda issues and changes, but are comprehensive models engaging with policy processes in general. In this paper we will only focus on those parts of the theories presented above that are related to our topic of government agenda. Further, the essay can give examples only for those theories that lend itself to it. This is to say that contrary to what is expected from this essay question, namely to use examples, this cannot be done regarding some theoretical frameworks that remain abstract without any empirical testing.
Agenda Setting and Indirect Power
Cobb and Elder (1983) define agenda setting as a process in which issues become part of "that set of items explicitly up for the active and serious consideration of authoritative decision makers" (Cobb and Elder, 1983, p.86). Cobb and Elder recognize that drawing the government's attention to certain problems is an act of wielding power. The assumption is that what is decided upon by the coercive power of the state has been already determined beforehand. In other words, the power to effectively influence policy makers' agenda is equal to decide what is decided upon. Scholars refer to this power as "indirect power" that in Bachrach and Baratz' view (1962) wields more influence over policy outcomes than direct power, that is to actually decide upon policies (Bachrach and Baratz, 1962, p. 948).
From this view, it is perfectly justified to claim that "actors who wield true political power within a given system are those who can influence or control the problems and policy alternatives that are placed on the government agenda" (Smith and Larimer, 2009, p. 77). The question we will now turn to is who these actors are and how they exert this indirect power.
Early literature on Agenda Setting: Pluralism and Iron Triangle Theory
The pluralist perspective considers the policy agenda setting as an outcome of a competition between different groups with different interests and ideas. Dahl and Lindblom (1953) perceives the power over agenda as diffused and not concentrated (Dahl and Lindblom, 1953, p. 413). In other words, it is an open debate, which everyone can access equally. The freedom of speech, "the independence, penetrability and heterogeneity (...) all guarantee that any dissatisfied group will find a spokesman" (Dahl, 1961, pp. 91-93). The underlying idea here is that the political public is insofar heterogeneous that it "is easily penetrated by anyone whose interests and concerns attract him to the distinctive political culture of the stratum." (1961, p. 92).
Policy scholars, however, are very skeptical of this perspective. Bachrach and Baratz (1963), for instance, pointed out what pluralism had failed to take into consideration, namely those in possession of agenda power are able to exclude groups and the issues they want to bring up on the policy-making agenda. (Bachrach and Baratz, 1963, p. 630-632.) Prior to Bachrach and Baratz' work, Schattschneider had challenged the pluralist model on fundamental ground. He argued that "it is not necessarily true that people with the greatest needs participate in politics most actively - whosoever decides what the game is about will also decide who gets in the game." (Schattschneider, 1960, p. 105)
At the extreme, the skeptics of the pluralist model introduced the concept of an unbreakable triad consisting of the congress, the bureaucracy, and special interest groups. According to them, the three actors mentioned above dominate the policy agenda in a way that they exchange ideas and solutions with only narrow benefits at the expense of the public interest. An example can be seen when looked at the European Union. An iron triangle consisting of ministries of agriculture, agricultural officials from the European Commission, and interest groups for farming, withstand any changes proposed by the Common Agricultural Policy (Simon, 1999, pp. 251-255).
The iron triangle model came under fire as well. Heclo (1977), for instance, challenged the model as incomplete, since it could not give reasons for changes in policy process. Heclo asked how new policy proposals emerge if the triad seals up the agenda. Furthermore, contrary to an inaccessible policy agenda tightly controlled by very limited number of actors, he observed fragmented structures in the policy system that allowed other actors such as public and private organizations, think and research institutes penetrate the policy landscape (Heclo, 1978). In short, agenda setting is not an impenetrable scene as the iron triangle model assumes but is as dynamic as it is fragmented into subsystems that wield influence over the agenda process.
Heclo introduced two key terms that are essential for understanding his theory of agenda setting: Issue networks and technopols. With the former, Heclo refers to interest groups such as intergovernmental lobbies that ally themselves with others to attempt seizing control of certain issues with which they can eventually exert influence on policy process. These alliances create issue networks that are based on "shared-attention, shared-action, or shared-belief" (1978, pp. 103-104). The term technopols on the other hand refers to individuals within issue networks that have specialized knowledge of the issue their network is surrounding. Those technopols are highly influential since policymakers rely on their expertise when examining the agenda.
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- issues move down government agenda comparison evaluation models