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Gary L. Larsen 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 Framework • Institutional Rational Choice • Multiple-Streams Framework • Policy Diffusion Framework • Funnel of Causality and Other • Punctuated-Equilibrium Frameworks Framework Less-promising Frameworks • • Arenas of Power Cultural Theory • • Constructivist Frameworks 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. Comments 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 arbitration. 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.
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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.

References Brunner, R. D. (1991). The policy movement as a policy problem. Policy Sciences, 24(1), 65-98. 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 Press.