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Gary L.

January 12, 2005
Theories of the Policy Process: Sabatier

Part 1—Introduction

Chapter 1. The Need for Better Theories, Paul A. Sabatier

Sabatier first sets the stage for the need for better theories by identifying the
extreme complexity of the policy process identifying its interacting elements to include
(a) hundreds of actors, (b) time spans of a decade or more, (c) multiple programs within a
given policy arena, (d) technical disputes on all aspects, and (e) most policy disputes
“involve deeply held values/interests, large amounts of money, and, at some point,
authoritative coercion” (p. 4). He posits the necessity of a strategy of science which
employs (a) verifiable methods and analysis, (b) explicit concepts and propositions
framed to be testable, (c) propositions should be general and focused on questions of
relevance, and (d) critical peer review. He goes on to characterize three kinds of
propositions: conceptual frameworks, theories, and models on a continuum of increasing
complexity and narrowing of scope. While Sabatier acknowledges the prototypical
“Stages Heuristic” of early policy process theoreticians, he finds it critically inadequate
for a variety of reasons necessitating exploration of more promising theoretical
frameworks. In advancing criteria by which to judge seven frameworks, he creates for
policy process theories a Weberian ideal type that exhibits the following characteristics:
(a) meets the test of being a scientific theory, (b) it has been subject to recent conceptual
development and empirical verification with the result of being judged viable by peers,
(c) the theory must be explanatory of the policy process, and (d) must address factors
judged to be important by political scientists in their consideration of public
policymaking. By these criteria he has discriminated among the following frameworks
those meeting the criteria sufficiently to merit detailed analysis in his book.

Discriminating Policy Analysis Frameworks Using Sabatier’s Criteria

Promising Frameworks • The Stages Heuristic • Advocacy Coalition
• Institutional Rational Choice Framework
• Multiple-Streams Framework • Policy Diffusion Framework
• Punctuated-Equilibrium • Funnel of Causality and Other
Framework Frameworks
Less-promising Frameworks • Arenas of Power • Constructivist Frameworks
• Cultural Theory • Policy Domain Framework

Part 2—Alternative Views of the Role of Rationality in the Policy Process

Chapter 2. The Stages Approach to the Policy Process: What Has It Done/ Where Is It
Going? Peter deLeon

DeLeon traces the genesis of the “Stages Heuristic,” following the transformation
of Laswell’s seven “stages” (1951) into “the decision process” (1956) which is
characterized by the following steps: Initiation, Estimation, Selection, Implementation,
Evaluation, and Termination. Sabatier finds this framework to be critically deficient for a
variety of reasons including that (a) it is not a causal model, (b) it provides no basis for
peer verification, (c) it is descriptively inaccurate, (d) it suffers from a legalistic top-down
orientation, (e) it emphasizes the unit of analysis of policy cycle at the expense of others
such as a system of intergovernmental relations, and (f) it does not provide a good way to
integrate policy analysis and the policy learning that occurs through public process. To
counter, DeLeon affirms the framework’s heuristic utility in policy research and
development as evidenced by its wide adoption for a number of years and its strong
congruence of purpose with the very purpose of policy analysis to create, in Laswell’s
words “better intelligence leading to better government” (cited by DeLeon as quoted by
Brunner (1991) (p. 81)).

Chapter 3. Institutional Rational Choice: An Assessment of the Institutional Analysis and

Development Framework, Elinor Ostrom

The Institutional Rational Choice Framework creates an “action arena” where

actors play out action situations circumscribed by particular boundary conditions of
physical/material conditions, attributes of community and rules-in-use. This bears
similarity to Weber’s civil society that is merely the playing field upon which individuals
mediate the effects of the state and the economy on people. Patterns of interaction lead to
outcomes, both of which are judged by evaluative criteria which, in turn, affect boundary
conditions, situations, and actors. Ostrom employs criteria of economic efficiency, fiscal
equivalence, redistributional equity, accountability, conformance to general morality, and
adaptability to judge policy outcomes. In her framework, action arenas are dependent
variables. She also suggests that the framework works well in characterizing multiple and
nested action arenas for any one level as well as nesting of arenas across analysis levels.
She characterizes the framework as being “a general language about how rules, physical
and material conditions, and attributes of community affect the structure of action arenas,
the incentives that individuals face, and the resulting outcomes” (p. 59). In response to
the editor’s request to assess the framework, Ostrom identifies key questions that would
need to be answered in such an assessment. Interestingly, her response can also be framed
as an ideal type of public policy theory which would have the following features: (a)
provision of a coherent language for universal theory elements, (b) useful for
discriminating differences and similarities, as well as for analysis of other theories, (c)
stimulation of new theory development, (d) serves to organize empirical research in new
areas, (e) leads to new theories and better explanations, (f) useful at multiple levels of
analysis, (g) fosters integration across disciplines, (h) consistent with other frameworks,
and (i) performs better than other theories.

Chapter 4. Ambiguity, Time, and Multiple Streams, Nikolaos Zahariadis

The Multiple Streams approach focuses on agenda setting and decisionmaking. It

addresses (a) rationing of policymaker attention, (b) issue framing, and (c) location of the
search for problems and solutions. It operates at both the unit of analysis of the single
decision as well at the level of policy systems, and has been subsequently extended to
deal with policy issues/domains. Kingdon “identified three streams flowing through the
system: problems, policies, and politics. Each is conceptualized as largely separate fro the
others, with its own dynamics and rules. At critical points in time, the streams are
coupled by policy entrepreneurs” (p. 76). Policy windows are created when the three
streams are joined together at critical junctures. Such critical junctures arise either
exogenously as in the case of a plane crash or endogenously by events in the political
stream. Critics raise questions of (a) independence of the three streams, (b) the role of
stream conjunctions and policy windows, (c) correspondence of solutions with
incremental policy stream evolution, and (d) is the framework merely a heuristic device?
The author concludes that the ambiguity in the framework cited by some critics is
actually a reflection of the real world ambiguity faced by all policymaking.

Part 3—Frameworks Focusing on Policy Change over Fairly Long Periods

Chapter 5. Punctuated-Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and Change in American

Policymaking, James L. True, Bryan D. Jones, and Frank R. Baumgartner

Punctuated-Equilibrium Theory seeks to explain the empirical world of policy

stasis which occasionally erupts into a new policy regime. This theory explains that
“Political sytems, like humans, cannot simultaneously consider all the issues that face
them, so the existence of some form of policy subsystems can be viewed as a mechanism
that allows the political system to engage in parallel processing” (p. 100). For the
exceptions, when the political system does fully embrace an issue, it does so in serial
processing—one at a time. From a systems feedback standpoint, the automatic parallel
processing operates on negative feedback, and the system is reset to a new equilibrium
point as the result of positive (goal-changing) feedback. Imbedded in the theory is the
notion that “the twin foundations of conservative and overlapping political institutions
and boundedly rational decisionmaking . . . combine to create a system that is both
inherently conservative and liable to occasional radical change” (p. 104). The inherent
weakness of this system is also its strength. While its description of issue evolution is
consistent with observations of how issues actually change, the very non-linearity or
singularity of the changes when they do happen make prediction of both timing and
outcomes of the new stasis particularly unpredictable.


In discussing the need for better theories in the first chapter, with only one
dismissive reference to constructiveness theories, Sabatier argues for a strictly scientific
approach. In so doing he is tacitly arguing that only one world view is right. Heppner,
Kivlighan, and Wampold (1999) assert that “Worldviews are the philosophical
foundations that guide understanding of the world and how inquiries are made to further
that understanding” (p. 236). They posit four worldviews:
1. Positivism employs the scientific method and holds that the nature of the universe
can be known and the scientist’s goal is to discover the natural laws that govern
the universe.
2. Postpositivism also employs the scientific method, but recognizes truth cannot be
fully known; we must therefore make probabilistic statements rather than absolute
statements about truth. Methods include peer review and scientific community
3. Constructivism holds that ideas about the world are constructed in people’s minds.
Reality is created by the participants of any system, the investigator and object
under consideration cannot be conceived of separately. General methods are
hermeneutics and dialectics. There are no truths to be discovered. Methods are
recursive rather than linear—results and method influence each other.
4. Critical Theory holds that people’s social constructions are shaped by the
environment. Investigation involves investigator/subject dialogue, and the
dialectic should lead to the participant’s understanding that social action is needed
to change the social order.
They believe that awareness of the paradigm at hand is crucial to match appropriate
methods to belief systems and to create research that is relevant for the associated body
of knowledge. They also distinguish qualitative research and methods from quantitative,
noting the general affiliation of quantitative research with positivist and postpositivist
enquiry and qualitative research with constructivist and critical theory research. Certainly
because of the number of participating actors, at least some academics and at least some
policy makers and elected officials vigorously hold non-positivist world views. Sabatier’s
work leaves these views out of his (and his reader’s) consideration.

With regard to the “Stages Heuristic,” my thirty years of experience as a public

administrator affirms that in the face of sometimes daunting tasks of policy formulation, a
simple heuristic often has great utility. In the face of sometimes conflicting imperatives
thrust upon an agency by recalcitrant, troglodyte, regressive, or just plain imperious
legislators, agents of the President, powerful citizens, or the court, deployment of a
simple heuristic might be the only way the public interest can, in the end, be served.
While the institutional rational choice theory provides a rich menu of choices for many
aspects of the policy process, it seems overly complicated, overly specified, and wrought
with so much detail, that in the end, at least from a practitioner’s standpoint, the
transaction cost for employing it may outweigh its utility—in other words, it may be too
cumbersome for real world application.

The garbage can model provides a graphic representation that corresponds well to
the policy world I have experienced. I can actually visualize and name the streams for
several different policy situations. For example, as the result of my association with the
Clinton Administration1, I independently described the natural resource policy pathways
in the first term of the Administration in a way that is remarkably similar to Kingdon’s
Multiple-Streams formulation. From my viewpoint, I also appreciate the recursive and
stochastic accommodations of the model that makes allowance for serendipity and the
sometimes inscrutable machinations of politics. Bureaucrats are held accountable for
predictable results. The Punctuated Equilibrium Theory reminds us that such
accountability is irrelevant when faced with the periodic sea changes that happen when
the political system singles out a policy for serial processing.

I first worked for the White House as the Natural Resource Policy Advisor to the President’s Council on
Sustainable Development for one and one half years, and was then subsequently Chief of Staff to the
Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment in the Department of Agriculture.

Brunner, R. D. (1991). The policy movement as a policy problem. Policy Sciences, 24(1),
Heppner, P. P., Kivlighan, D. M., & Wampold, B. E. (1999). Research design in
counseling (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Wadsworth.
Lasswell, H. D. (1951). The policy orientation. In D. Lerner & H. D. Lasswell (Eds.),
The policy sciences.Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Lasswell, H. D. (1956). The decision process.College Park: University of Maryland