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On the Challenge of Finding New Heights in Policy Change Theory


New directions in public policy: theories of policy change and variation

reconsidered by Peter John (2013) discusses much about the three distinct ages of

theory building and testing but focuses on three synthetic approaches while also delving

into the inclusion of comparative political economy into the fore of policy change and

variation theory. The article narrates on the basics of the each distinct age while also

attempting to visualize the future prospects of the said matter by highlighting the

developments in the contemporary period, while also indicating that scholars must be

alarmed of the risk of the study of policy change becoming moribund. The author argues

this in lieu of the fact that there seems to have been a characteristic of stagnation

looming the field. According to John (2013), the solution lies in reconstructing public

policy studies in such a way that brings about concrete results in that it can clearly

explain particular phenomena and not just describe such using metaphors.

So far, two ages have passed in the field of public policy—the first being the

classical period, and the second pertaining to that of the synthetic age. On the one

hand, the former aimed to define the key terms, which are operationalized up to this

time. Furthermore, it was also the time when the primary debates on decision-making

were held. The latter, on the other, served to elaborate the concepts produced from

earlier times and sought to clarify the complex processes embedded within the process

of policy change. The synthetic age also took account of the different inputs that can

trigger stability or fluctuations in policy change, like ideas and agenda-setting

processes, which produced three models—the policy advocacy coalition framework, the

policy window model, and the punctuated equilibrium model.

The policy advocacy coalition framework puts premium in the relationships that

form in view of decision-making. John (2013, p.5) defines coalition as “an alliance of

bodies” that espouses or holds similar ideas and interests, which are created in order to

be able to pit these ideas against “other coalitions within the same policy sector”. Since

this was created in the synthetic age, coalitions do not merely involve elites in the act of

policy-making, but it also allows for the participation of a diverse set of actors, like

academicians, journalists, interest-group representatives, to name a few. According to

Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1993) the key aspect in this framework is the possession

of a wide variety of knowledge of these coalitions on certain policy issues. This can

hopefully make the policy-outcome possess a comprehensive set of considerations.

Further, the model assumes that policy change must be subjected to observation over a

period of time in order to be able to assess how the aforementioned change will take

place. With this line of thought, it is also assumed that unless a crisis comes into the

fore, the ideas and interests that are advocated by a specific policy should remain

stable, with the presence of institutions and laws as stabilizing factors. That being said,

it might be difficult for the framework to actually explain policy change, as it places

excessive importance in the externalities that can affect the phenomenon.

The Policy Streams and Windows model emphasizes continuous changes in

policy. This means that inputs and ideas on policies come from various sources and

thus they have a “come-and-go” characteristic (Kingdon, as cited in John, 2013). The

author cites three processes involved in this model—problems, which are issues that
need to be resolved and may be viewed as important or unimportant; policies, which are

the proposals derived through the work of specialists in order to bring about change;

and lastly, political processes, which characterized by “public moods” (Kingdon, as cited

in John, 2013, p. 11) that influence public perception on issues through media as well

as the results of an election, of which the elected officials greatly determine how

problems are given their respective solutions. These provide a sense of contingency on

the matters listed in the agenda, and as such, Kingdon (as cited in John, 2013) aims to

determine the combination that would be conducive to a robust policy outcome. This

makes policy formation subject to luck and chance. Important issues, then, may only be

forwarded when circumstances are favorable to the creation of a policy, thus the

concept of a “policy window”. Kingdon (as cited in John, 2013) argues that the opening

and closing of these windows are only limited in duration, so swift action must be taken

for the proposal to make it to the list. In this regard, Kingdon utilizes the garbage can

model to make sense of how decision-makers try to delegate problems to a particular

organization as they move on to the next issue, which in turn can help in the

determination of salient issues. This stresses the importance of institutions,

organizations, and agencies because it is in these wherein various issues are filtered.

What is missing in this model, however, is the process of which these ideas become

transformed into implemented programs and make it back to the agenda through a

feedback look.

The Punctuated Equilibrium, lastly, seems to emphasize both stability and

contingency in the policy-making process—with Baumgartner and Jones (1993) stating

that this is an active process that demonstrates changes through intermittent periods of
stability that is constantly altered by issue-expansions which trigger change. In this

light, the model prioritizes the identification of “shifts in the rate of policy change” and

the reason behind their occurrence in a given period of time. Baumgartner and Jones,

furthermore, do not believe that institutions merely function as stabilizers of policies—

rather, they are able to gain ideas that can be transformed into policy change, despite

being only incremental in quality. However, because the policy-makers and the media

(which publicizes various issues) are contained in an endless cycle of reinforcement,

issues become salient and stability becomes threatened by changes that can possibly

take place. That being said, many elements, both internal and external, affect the policy-

making process. However, this model is still limited to descriptions, places excessive

importance on the power of media, and the composition of the agenda is too reliant on

forthcoming political events.

After Jones’s discussion on the synthesized models, he went on to give a brief

visualization of the possible future of policy change theories. In this attempt, he argued

that comparative political economy should be involved in the policy-making process in

the sense that not only political events matter, but economic power holders also seem

to greatly affect policy outcomes, especially when taking into consideration the effects of

capital and labor. This sets it apart from the previous models that were mentioned

herein. In the end, therefore, the article sees great potential in comparative political

economy as a feat in policy-making, stressing the fear that a lack of effort to incorporate

this sub-discipline in the realm of policy might render the discipline of public policy, as a

whole, stagnant.

It is to be surmised that policy-making is not simply a topic taken up in public

administration classes. At the heart of political science is the need for its actualization,

which then lies in the creation of good policy outcomes. For this to be the result of the

effort of a diverse set of actors, there needs to be a clear and optimized process that

should guide their plan of action. This is the importance of rediscovering and revisiting

the past ages that brought to the fore various theories that establish concepts, explain

complexities that arise out of the phenomena taking place within society, and from

there, create policy innovations. In this commentary, the student is inclined to argue that

scholars of policy change should increase their sense of urgency if indeed comparative

political economy is the only addition to the models discussed above as of late.

However, this is not for the reason that the student believes that policy studies is

becoming moribund. Rather, it is because the state of many countries, in the

contemporary period, is in need of better and more inclusive policies. The fact that the

repertoire of experience a particular population goes through is ever changing, the

student refuses to believe that policy-making can ever be considered to be dead, or

even nearing its demise. It continues to be relevant and will continue to be significant in

the future generations to come.

An example of a problem that needs more innovative policies is traffic

congestion. This has become an inevitable feature of a person’s daily life, whether he or

she would be driving a private-owned vehicle or commuting to his or her place of

destination. In this sense, a great mass of people remains frustrated about the fact that

policymakers find it difficult to provide a solution to extirpate road congestion. Truly

enough, to remedy this issue remains a struggle due to a large number of factors and
variations that needs to be considered. Primarily, traffic does not simply mean an

excess in vehicles, it cannot simply be caused by small and narrow roads or a poorly

planned road transportation system—it is a combination of these factors that make it

arduous for policymakers to pinpoint a specific constraint and then create a cure to this

problem. There could be a high vehicle density with narrow roads, or a low vehicle

density with sufficient road space but poorly planned road transportation system. More

than being excessively tired from travelling an ideally 30-minute ride turned 2 hours, it

also has adverse economic effects. First, whether the car is moving or not, as long as

the engine on, fuel is consumed. This is frustrating for the private-vehicle owner driving

to work, but moreso with the PUV driver who is trying to make a living. Other than that,

delivery trucks that have a strict schedule are also burdened by this problem, and lack

of punctuality in delivery is bad for business. Indeed, as Chua (2015) argued, traffic

congestion has adverse effects on a wide scale.

Aside from the situations presented, there are many more complications brought

about by traffic congestion. Hence, there is an elephant in the room that asks why there

are no policy options available to solve such a predicament. Downs (2004) maintains

that there are simply some things that cannot be avoided without a massive

restructuring scheme. Most of the ideas proposed were “prohibitively expensive”, like

expanding the roads so that all vehicles would fit. However, this line of thinking cannot

be pursued, because in the Philippines, buildings and establishments that surround the

main roads would need to be sacrificed just to make way for wider roads. Even if this

was possible, Downs further argues that as much as this would surely be beneficial

during rush hours, it would be extremely underutilized during non-peak hours. This is an
example of a complex issue that must be continually on the agenda for study by

policymakers. If the roads cannot be changed, then perhaps other projects can be made

as substitute. A novel approach in policy change theory that can include the study of

political, economic, social and geographic correlations might be beneficial in this regard.

In further reflection, the student maintains that there should be media outlets that

are effective in relaying the political, economic, and social realities of the Philippines to

the public eye, which means that they communicate relevant news that would not only

be of interest to the people, but would equip them with the knowledge they need in

crafting their own agendas in a way that would make them informed and productive

citizens. The media outlets that the Filipinos subscribe to are claimed by many to be

deceiving (Guiguio, 2015; Luna, 2016; de Jesus, 2016), and for those who are not

trained to interpret the news in a manner that would be conducive to the betterment of

the Philippines, news programs, newspapers, and other paraphernalia only serve as

means to divide the country. The third synthesized model, the Punctuated Equilibrium

model, speaks about the importance of media in shaping policies and also policy

outputs—the former pertaining to their contribution to policy-making via the

determination of their perception on what they need to receive as ‘customers’ of the

government that they elected, and the latter referring to how they receive the services

brought about by the policies, and whether or not they comply with its implementation.

This would allow great correspondence between the people and the government, given

that the delivered goods and services are in line with their preferences.
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of bias and control. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from Ethical Journalism Network:
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Downs, A. (2004, January 1). Traffic: Why It’s Getting Worse, What Government Can
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Guioguio, R. (2015, March 22). An Overview of the Mass Media Situation in the
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Sabatier, P. A., & Jenkins-Smith, H. C. (1993). Policy change and learning: an advocacy
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