What is Agenda-Setting?

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Source: Howlett, M & Shivakoti, R. (2014) Agenda-Setting Tools: State-Driven Agenda Activity from Government Relations to Scenario Forecasting.  DRAFT PAPER, Presented to ECPR Glasgow General Conference, Non-Implementation Tools Panel

As Cobb and Elder put it in their early studies of the subject in the United States; … pre-political, or at least pre-decisional processes often play the most critical role in determining what issues and alternatives are to be considered by the Legal Governance Mode Policy Process Corporatist Governance Mode Policy Process Network Governance Mode Policy Process Market Governance Mode Policy Process Agenda-Setting e.g. . Trade Surveys Policy Formulation e.g. Regulatory Impact Assessments Decision-Making e.g. Multi-Criteria Analyses Focusing on Employment and Income effects Policy Implementation e.g. Cost-of-Service Price Regulations Policy Evaluation e.g. Consultations with Affected Companies 6 polity and the probable choices that will be made. What happens in the decision-making councils of the formal institutions of government may do little more than recognize, document and legalize, if not legitimize, the momentary results of a continuing struggle of forces in the larger social matrix… From this perspective, the critical question becomes, how does an issue or a demand become or fail to become the focus of concern and interest within a polity?(Cobb and Elder 1972).

The question of how a problem comes to be interpreted as a public problem requiring government action raises deeper questions about the nature of human knowledge and the social construction of that knowledge and the policy sciences took many years to evolve a position or theory on the nature of social problems.3

It has long been generally agreed, however, that a variety of political (Castles and McKinlay 1979; Castles 1982; Hibbs, 1977; King, 1981; von Beyme 1984) epistemological (Hilgartner and Bosk 1981; Holzner and Marx 1979; Rochefort and Cobb 1993), and ideological (Edelman 1988; Stark 1992; Fischer ad Forester 1993; Stone 1988 and 1989) factors in addition to the unfolding of basic socio-economic processes can affect which social problems gain access to the formal policy agenda of government. This conceptual agreement on the basic outline of significant policy determinants, far from representing the culmination of analysis in this area of public policy-making, merely sets out the general types of variables which analysts should take into account when investigating the subject. In this same vein, a wide-variety of analysts from a disparate range of fields have endorsed a model of agenda-setting first put forward by John Kingdon in his 1984 work on the operation of the U.S. federal legislative system. 7 His model deals with the question of state and non-state influences on agenda-setting by focusing on the role played by policy entrepreneurs both inside and outside of government in taking advantage of agenda-setting opportunities – policy windows – to move items onto formal government agendas. It suggests that the characteristics of issues – the problem stream – combine with the characteristics of political institutions and circumstances – the politics stream – and the development of policy solutions – the policy stream – in a fashion which can lead to the opening and closing of windows of opportunity for agenda entrance. Such opportunities can be seized upon or not, as the case may be, by policy entrepreneurs who are able to recognize and act upon them.

Kingdon’s model of agenda-setting represents the orthodoxy in policy studies. Among other subjects, it has been used to describe and assess the nature of U.S. foreign policy-making (Woods and Peake 1998); the politics of privatization in Britain, France and Germany (Zahariadis 1995; Zahariadis and Allen 1995); the nature of U.S. domestic anti-drug policy (Sharp 1994); the collaborative behaviour of business and environmental groups in certain anti-pollution initiatives in the U.S. and Europe (Lober 1997); and the overall nature of the reform process in Eastern Europe (Keeler 1993).It leaves open, however, the key questions of which policy actors are involved in agenda-setting and the manner in which the highlighted variables combine to affect the actions of these actors.

Beginning from the observation that the process of agenda-setting involves discussion, debate, and persuasion among policy makers, who present a variety of evidence and argument in support of their position (Majone 1989),scholars such as Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones developed models of agenda-setting which focused on the significance of policy subsystems (Baumgartner and Jones 1991, 1993, 1994).That is, the 8 two key actors in agenda-setting are governments and the “public” and the relationship set out between them was one in which the government responded to public concern. Both sets of actors are often assumed to be driven largely by self-interest: the government by its political wing and politicians’ interest in re-election in a democratic polity and the public by rational calculations of what individuals felt could be accomplished as a result of their devotion of scarce political resources to particular problems. The key element in the process of agenda-setting, in this view, revolves around the ability of state and societal actors to control the interpretation of a problem and thus the manner in which it is conceived and discussed (Howlett and Ramesh 1995).

Many other models similarly focused on the nature of the actors involved in the process and the general characterization of agenda-setting “styles” in terms of typical relationships of power and influence existing between significant actors (Cobb, Ross and Ross 1976; Rochefort and Cobb 1994). These studies tended to support the view that agenda-setting in democratic states is largely a matter of governments responding to social pressures and focused their attention on how the activities of interest groups could facilitate this process. Other studies, however, pointed to a much larger role played by government agencies and a variety of “boundary-spanning” organizations, such as the media, in blocking, filtering or otherwise affecting the development of public concerns, undermining the notion that agenda-setting was a relatively simple, one-way, transmission process (Downs, 1972; Howlett 1997 and 1996; Hogwood 1992).

That is, there is as much evidence that the government agenda drives the public as there is for the reverse situation.


In Text Citations:

Baumgartner, Frank R. and Bryan D. Jones. “Attention, Boundary Effects, and LargeScale Policy Change in Air Transportation Policy.” In The Politics of Problem Definition: Shaping the Policy Agenda, edited by D. A. Rochefort and R. W. Cobb. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994.

Baumgartner, F. R., and B. D. Jones. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Baumgartner, F. R., and B. D. Jones. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Baumgartner, Frank R. and Bryan D. Jones. “Agenda Dynamics and Policy Subsystems.” Journal of Politics.53, no. 4 (1991): 1044-1074

Castles, Frank and Robert D. McKinlay, “Does Politics Matter: An Analysis of the Public Welfare Commitment in Advanced Democratic States,” European Journal of Political Research, 7, 1979, pp. 169-186

Castles, Francis G. “The Impact of Parties on Public Expenditure,” Francis G. Castles (ed.), The Impact of Parties: Politics and Policies in Democratic Capitalist States, London: Sage Publications, 1982, pp. 21-96

Cobb, Roger W. and Charles D. Elder, Participation in American Politics: The Dynamics of Agenda-Building, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972, p. 12.

Downs, A. “Up and Down with Ecology – The ‘Issue-Attention Cycle.’” Public Interest 28 (1972): 38–50.

Edelman, Murray J. Constructing the Political Spectacle, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 12-13

Fischer, Frank and John Forester, ed. The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning. Durham Duke University Press, 1993

Hibbs Jr., Douglas A. “Political Parties and Macroeconomic Policy,” American Political Science Review, 71, 1977, pp. 1467-1487

Hilgartner, Stephen, and Charles L. Bosk. “The Rise and Fall of Social Problems: A Public Arenas Model,” American Journal of Sociology, 94: 1, 1981, pp. 53-78

Holzner, Burkhart and John H. Marx. Knowledge Application: The Knowledge System in Society, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979

Hogwood, Brian W. Ups and Downs: Is There an Issue-Attention Cycle in Britain? Glasgow: Strathclyde Papers in Government and Politics no. 89, 1992

Howlett, M. “Issue-Attention and Punctuated Equilibria Models Reconsidered: An Empirical Examination of the Dynamics of Agenda-Setting in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 30, no. 1 (1997): 3–29.

Howlett, Michael “Issue-Attention Cycles and Punctuated Equilibrium Models ReConsidered: An Empirical Examination of Agenda-Setting in Canada”, Canadian Journal of Political Science 1997

Howlett, Michael Agenda-Setting in Canada: Evidence from Six Case Studies, Paper Presented to the Annual Meeting of the British Columbia Political Studies Association, Prince George, 1996.

Keeler, John T.S. “Opening the Window for Reform: Mandates, Crises and Extraordinary Policy-Making” in Comparative Political Studies 25 (4), 1993 pp. 433-486

King, Anthony“ What Do Elections Decide?,” in David Butler, Howard R. Penniman, and Austin Ranney (eds.), Democracy at the Polls: A Comparative Study of Competitive National Elections, Washington D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981

Lober, Douglas J. “Explaining the Formation of Business-Environmentalist Collaborations: Collaborative Windows and the Paper Task Force” in Policy Sciences 30, 1997 pp. 1-24

Majone, Giandomenico, Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Rochefort David A. and Roger W. Cobb, “Problem Definition, Agenda Access, and Policy Change,” Policy Studies Journal, 21:1, 1993, pp. 56-71;

Sharp, Elaine B. “Paradoxes of National Anti-Drug Policymaking” in David A. Rochefort and Roger W. Cobb eds., The Politics of Problem Definition: Shaping the Policy Agenda (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994) pp. 98-116

Stark, Andrew “’Political-Discourse’ Analysis and the Debate Over Canada’s Lobbying Legislation”, Canadian Journal of Political Science, 25: 3, 1992, pp. 513-534

Stone, Deborah A. “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas.” Political Science Quarterly. 104, no. 2 (1989): 281-300

Stone, Deborah A. Policy Paradox and Political Reason, Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1988

Von Beyme, Klaus “Do Parties Matter? The Impact of Parties on the Key Decisions in the Political System,” Government and Opposition, 19, 1984, pp. 5-29

Woods, B. Dan and Jeffrey S. Peake, “The Dynamics of Foreign Policy Agenda-Setting” in American Political Science Review 92 (1) 1998, pp. 173-184

Zahariadis, N., Markets, States, and Public Policy: Privatization in Britain and France (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)

Zahariadis, Nikoloas and Christopher S. Allen, “Ideas, Networks, and Policy Streams: Privatization in Britain and Germany” in Policy Studies Review 14 (1/2) 1995 pp. 71-98



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