Kingdon, J. W. (2003). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Longman Pub Group.
Kingdon’s book on agenda setting and policy formation is a landmark work in the field of public policy. As we all know, according to Lasswell(1956), there are seven different stages of the policy process. Subsequently, a number of different typologies in policy process have been put forward by various scholars. Nowadays, the differentiation between agenda setting, policy formation, decision making, implementation, and evaluation (eventually leading to termination) has become the conventional way to describe a policy process. Kingdon’s book is the first to focus on how issues become issues, which is the first two parts of the policy process.
The research question of this book is what makes people in and around government attend, at any given time, to some subjects and not to others. What are the main factors behind this process? To address these questions, Kingdon conducts interviews with people in and around the U.S. federal government and using case studies, party platforms government documents, press coverage, and public opinion surveys. Finally, he finds that what issues get on the agenda or not in public policy making process is determined by two factors: 1) participants inside and outside governments and 2) process which includes the problem stream, the policy stream, and the political stream.
So, what is agenda? We use the word “agenda” in various meanings in our daily conversation. In this book the term “agenda” is defined as below: “the list of subjects or problems which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time” (p.3). Furthermore, apart from a set of subjects and problems, government officials will also pay much attention to alternatives for governmental action. And the difference between agenda setting and alternative specification is quite useful in the following analysis.
Since participants are very important in agenda setting and alternative specification, the author delves into the characteristics of every participant in and around the federal government. The following discussion focuses on (1) the importance of each participant, (2) the ways each is important (whether each affects agendas, alternatives, or both) and (3) the resources available to each participant.
For participants inside of the federal government, there are different actors like the President, presidential staff, political appointees, civil servants, and congressional staff. On the other hand, there are participants outside the government, namely, interest groups, researchers, media, elections-related participants, and public opinion.
Among all these participants, the visible participants include the President, high-level executive branch officials, prominent members of Congress, the media, political parties. And the hidden participants include academics, career bureaucrats, congressional staff, lower-level political appointees. Agenda setting is often driven more by a visible cluster of participants. But the generation of alternatives is affected more by the hidden cluster of participants who bring specific areas of expertise, including technical knowledge, to the process.
In fact, there are different approaches to studying agenda setting, which include origins, rationality, incrementalism, and garbage cans. A concentration on the origins of initiatives does not make for a very complete theory about agenda setting or alternative specification. Because ideas can come from anywhere; there is an infinite regress; and nobody leads anybody else. Still and all, a rational comprehensive model does not describe very well the processes under investigation in this book, taken as a whole. Moreover, an incremental or gradualism model does not describe agenda change particularly well, like the sudden changes in agendas. However, the public policy making process of the federal government suits the preconditions of the garbage can model very well. People in the federal government do disagree about what they want the government to achieve, they have the elusive technology to achieve their goals, and participation change from one decision to another, and turnover of personnel improves the fluidity. In addition, running through such organizations are four separate streams: problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities. Based on the garbage can model, Kingdon develops a revised model contains the problems, policies, and politics streams.
Various mechanisms bring problems to people’s attention. Firstly, Changes in indicators (e.g. federal expenditure, disease rates, and consumer prices) are observed through 1) routine monitoring activities and 2) studies on a particular problem at a given point in time. Policy makers use indicators to assess the magnitude of a problem and to become aware of changes in the problem. Secondly, a focusing event such as a crisis or disaster, a powerful symbol, the personal experience of a policy maker can push people to get the attention. Thirdly, Feedback is the more programmatic factor than Indicators. Contents of feedback messages are 1) implementation that does not square with legislative or higher administrative intent, 2) a failure to meet stated goals, and 3) the cost of the program.
The second stream is the policy stream. In policy “primeval soup,” many ideas appear, float around these communities and then fade. There are some criteria for survival, such as technical feasibility and value acceptability. As we all know, the policy community can be quite tightly knit or quite fragmented. Fragmentation in a policy community leads to policy fragmentation, lack of common outlooks, orientations and ways of thinking in the community, and even worse, agenda instability. In policy stream, policy entrepreneurs are important roles who invest time, energy, reputation and money for advocating policies. Policy entrepreneurs aim to “soften up the general public, more specialized publics, and the policy community itself”. (p. 143).
Political stream includes such things as public mood, pressure group campaigns, election results, partisan or ideological distributions in Congress, and changes of administration. Changes in the political stream have a powerful effect on agendas. Moreover, “consensus building in the political arena, in contrast to consensus building among policy specialists, takes place through a bargaining process rather than by persuasion” (p. 163).
After analyzing the three different streams, it is time to study how they interact with each other and lead to agenda setting. To have a better understanding of the above issue, Kingdon puts up a concept of “policy window”. The policy window is an opportunity for advocates of proposals to push their pet solutions, or o push attention to their special problems. If the policy window opens, then, the separate three streams come together.
In total, Kington’s book provides us a new approach to looking at agenda setting, which is clear and persuasive. He tries to open the black box within agenda setting and alternatives specification. I think the specific cases and interviews in the book are valuable and able to give us a whole and vivid picture of the public policy making process in the U.S. federal government. Further, the following scholars in public policy extend this framework to various kinds of policy arenas and countries. Also, there are some studies that focus on the other processes of public policy, like the termination of a public policy using Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach (MSA). All these efforts contribute to the development of this approach.
From my perspective, Kington’s Multiple Streams Approach is very similar to the garbage can model. The preconditions and the logic inside the models are totally the same except that Kington changed the main variables in the model. He changed problems to problem streams, solutions to policy streams, participants to politics streams, and choice opportunities to policy windows. So, I wonder what is the real innovation Kingdon made? Furthermore, there are still some questions worth studying. Are the streams in the approach independent of each other? Kingdon assumes that the three streams are independent, but at the same time, he also admits that “the streams are not absolutely independent” (p.88). In the real world of public policy making, I think it is very difficult to separate the streams from each other. Another question concerned with the three streams is the policy window that is really important for agenda setting. So, what is the real mechanism between these different variables? Kington’s Multiple Streams Approach is rather like a metaphor instead of a theory because the mechanisms are still not clear stated and studied.
1. Kingdon, J. W. (2003). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. Longman Pub Group.
2. Lasswell, H. D. (1956). The decision process: seven categories of functional analysis. Bureau of Governmental Research, College of Business and Public Administration, University of Maryland.