An Introduction to the Policy Process
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An Introduction to the Policy Process

Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making

Thomas A. Birkland

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eBook - ePub

An Introduction to the Policy Process

Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making

Thomas A. Birkland

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Now in a thoroughly revised Fifth Edition, An Introduction to the Policy Process provides students at all levels with an accessible, readable, and affordable introduction to the field of public policy. In keeping with prior editions, author Tom Birkland conveys the best current thinking on the policy process in a clear, conversational style. Designed to address new developments in both policy theory and policy making, the Fifth Edition includes examinations of:

  • the Brexit referendum result and its effects on the UK, European Union, and world politics, as well as the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the ways in which these events have caused voters and policy makers to rethink their assumptions;

  • changes to the media environment, including the decline of newspapers and television news, the growth of social media, and the emergence of "fake news";

  • new policy theory developments like the emergence of the Narrative Policy Framework and continued and newer applications of existing theories of policy process like Advocacy Coalitions, Multiple Streams, Punctuated Equilibrium, and Institutional Analysis and Development; and

  • all-new and updated chapter "at a glance" outlines, definitions of key terms, provocative review questions, recommended reading, visual aids and case studies, theoretical literature, and preentation slides and Test Banks to make teaching from the book easier than ever.

Firmly grounded in both social science and political science, An Introduction to the Policy Process provides the most up-to-date and thorough overview of the theory and practice of the policy process, ideal for upper-level undergraduate and introductory graduate courses in Public Policy, Public Administration, and Political Science programs.

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1 Introducing the Policy Process

Chapter at a Glance


This book is about how public policy is made in the United States. My goal in writing this book is to introduce you to the way in which social scientists have developed theories of how public policies are designed, enacted, and implemented. In particular, this book is about the public policy process, drawing on current research on how policy is made. This focus on policy process theory sets this book apart from those textbooks on public policy that tend to summarize the substance of public policy, such as “environmental policy” or “energy policy” or “health policy.” Other public policy textbooks approach public policy from an economic perspective—as a form of policy analysis, which can be rather different from analysis based in politics (Stone 2012) (I take this topic up in Chapter 8). Many of these books develop new theories of the policy process, but often those theories are unique to these textbooks, and are unfamiliar to those of us who study policy making as a political activity.
This book focuses on approaches to the policy process that are currently being developed, applied, tested, and refined by an active, interdisciplinary community of scholars from around the world. I am very privileged to be a member of this community, and one of my goals in this book is to invite you to join this diverse and lively community of scholars, and to help you to navigate the wealth of ideas being generated in contemporary policy research.
This book describes how policy is shaped by and, in turn, shapes the social, institutional, political, economic context in which public policy is made. Much of this description will be familiar to anyone who has studied political science and, in particular, American politics. The difference between this book and an introductory American politics textbook is that I am interested in how groups, institutions, and structures influence public policy making, starting with the assumption that the proponents of new policies firmly believe that there are real problems that require government attention, and that their preferred solutions are the best way to address these problems.
Understanding the policy process in the way I outline in this book may help you to make sense of how and why government makes decisions about what to do. For example, why does the U.S. government allow some people to deduct mortgage interest from their income taxes? Why don’t other countries, like Canada, offer similar incentives to buy houses? Why don’t renters get similar tax breaks, or why don’t landlords get tax breaks that might reduce rents? Would such tax breaks reduce rents? Why doesn’t the United States have a single-payer, comprehensive health insurance system like many other countries? Why is the idea of creating such a system so passionately resisted by some people? Why does the United States regulate gun ownership far less stringently than do other nations? Of course, we could reframe the question: why do other countries have stricter gun laws? What is it about different countries’ constitutions, cultures, politics, and institutions that make them differ from one another? In particular, what is it about the United States that makes it similar to other countries, as well as different?
Other questions reveal puzzlement over the constitutional structure, and how that structure influences public policy. Why is the federal government so deeply involved in crime and education policy when the U.S. constitutional system places the primary responsibility for these programs in the state and local governments? Why would some states and the federal government permit the use of capital punishment for certain crimes, while other states have stopped using capital punishment? Another class of questions relates to the policy tools governments employ to achieve certain goals. Is regulation of consumer product safety better for public safety, or would greater reliance on the market and better information for consumers work better to promote public safety? Do lower taxes on the wealthy spur greater investment in job creation, or do lower taxes simply starve government of the funds to provide what we might argue are essential public services, such as education or law enforcement? These are questions that motivate many people of all ideological and political persuasions to better the public policy process and its role in identifying, defining, and seeking solutions to public problems.
We ask these kinds of questions because we assume people want to be problem solvers, and many people think that government should either help to solve problems or, where they believe that government causes more problems than it solves, people want government to get out of the way. People, therefore, study the policy process to better understand why government does what it does, but people also study the process to learn how to create the policies they want government to pursue. People participate in policy making because they perceive that there are problems for which government, at some level, can provide solutions. Others participate, in turn, because they believe that those problems may not exist at all, or, if they do exist, they are best handled by markets, or by families, or by nonprofit organizations, or churches, or any number of other means. We study public policy because we want to understand these problems. But, more to the point of this book, we study the public policy process to better understand how people and groups define problems, how they seek solutions to those problems, and how they persuade other people that their ideas are superior to those promoted by other people and groups. The ultimate goal for many policy scholars, as I will explore in more depth in the final chapter of this book, is to help us to understand the conditions under which policies change.

What Is Public Policy?

In any field, the definition of key terms and ideas is very important, but even the simplest terms can be defined rather differently by different scholars. There are many possible ways to define “public policy.” For many people, defining what we mean by public policy helps them define their own role in policy making, as well as that of the organization they work for. As I was writing this chapter for the First Edition of this book, a member of the policy analysis office of a New York State agency called me. The agency was engaging in a strategic planning initiative; to do so, it needed to establish its mission—its very reason for existence. Because this agency influences taxation, spending, and government performance assessment—that is, public policy in the broad sense—the caller was particularly interested in defining the term public policy, because it was clear to her that her agency did indeed make public policy, but how could they be sure without a good definition of the idea? She wanted a definition so that her agency could know better how public policy relates to its work. The analyst ran through a list of the classic public policy texts, and asked if these were good sources of a definition of public policy. She was puzzled because it was hard to know which definition was the “right” one.
She was asking for a definition of “public policy” so that her agency could more readily distinguish what is and what is not public policy, so as to focus its efforts on its public policy functions. I shared with her Thomas Dye’s argument that the search for a definition of public policy can degenerate into a word game that, eventually, does little to improve our understanding of the idea. I suggested to the caller that she review the definitions outlined in Table 1.1, which shows some examples of the definitions of public policy that one could draw from, and some strengths and weaknesses of these definitions.
Table 1.1 Defining “Public Policy”
“The term public policy always refers to the actions of government and the intentions that determine those actions.”
Clarke E. Cochran et al.a
“Public policy is the outcome of the struggle in government over who gets what.”
Clarke E. Cochran et al.
“Whatever governments choose to do or not to do.”
Thomas Dyeb
“Public policy consists of political decisions for implementing programs to achieve societal goals.”
Charles L. Cochran and Eloise F. Malonec
“Stated most simply, public policy is the sum of government activities, whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the life of citizens.”
B. Guy Petersd
a Clarke E. Cochran et al., American Public Policy: An Introduction. 10th edn (Boston, MA: Cengage Wadsworth, 2010).
b Thomas R. Dye, Understanding Public Policy. 14th edn (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2013).
c Charles L. Cochran and Eloise F. Malone, Public Policy: Perspectives and Choices. 4th edn (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010).
d B. Guy Peters, American Public Policy: Promise and Performance. 8th edn (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010).
No single definition may ever be developed, but we can see these key attributes of public policy:
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    Public policy is made in response to some sort of problem and that deserves some sort of government response.
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    Public policy is made in the “public interest,” a term enclosed in quotation marks because not everyone will agree on the public interest.
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    Policy is interpreted and implemented by public and private actors who have different motivations, and therefore will bring different interpretations of problems and solutions.
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    Public policy is oriented toward a goal or desired state, such as reducing the incidence or severity of some sort of a problem.
  • inline
    Policy is ultimately made by governments (Howlett, Ramesh, and Perl 2009, 5), even if the ideas come from outside government or through the interaction of government and nongovernmental actors.
While reaching a consensus on one definition of public policy has proved difficult, all the variants of the definition suggest that public policy making is public—it affects a greater variety of people and interests than do private decisions. This is why government and the policies made by government are sometimes so controversial, frustrating and, at the same time, very important.
I define a policy as a statement by government—at whatever level, in whatever form—of what it intends to do about a public problem. For example, a law that says that those caught driving while intoxicated will go to jail or lose their driving privileges is a statement of governmental policy to punish drunk drivers. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a statement of government policy about how the federal government will make decisions that affect the natural environment. The First Amendment is itself a statement of public policy, which specifies that Congress cannot abridge religious, speech, or press freedoms, by stating, “Congress shall make no law 
” The First Amendment is, therefore, a statement about where the federal government will make no policy; of course, the interpretation of whether some policy that is actually made somehow violates the First Amendment poses very difficult legal and political decisions. These decisions are usually made by the courts. For example, the Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), is a statement of policy that claims to implement the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution, by stating that the f...

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