Open Discussion Forum - Policy Windows


Comment below on anything regarding the topic of policy windows or specific things you found interesting about the readings or videos this week.


Last week here we had a discussion on the impact of social media on agenda setting, and I think it’s interesting to consider the impact of social media on policy windows. On one hand, social media provide a stronger voice to policy entrepreneurs who do not have access to political elites, providing a means to distribute information and build coalitions that would not be possible if news distribution was still dominated by a relatively small number of newspapers and network news programs.

On the other hand, the expansion of news outlets has also fragmented news consumers, making it much more difficult for a policy window to stay open long enough for any policy to pass. Older technologies provided wider audiences (because there were fewer outlets) and a slower news cycle (because it was limited by the available technology). This makes it easier to focus national mood on a particular issue long enough for legislation to pass. Today, by contrast, news consumers are bombarded by stories on many different topics at all times. This has the potential to make us better informed—whether it has is debatable—but I think in practice it has also exacerbated our already-short attention spans. Issues flare up, but are quickly replaced by others and forgotten; even if social media allow policy entrepreneurs to open more windows, other issues close them by diverting attention away.

I’m not arguing that social media are solely responsible for the overall decline in Congressional productivity, but I think they do play a more important role in the decline than we may realize.

I came across this article about the mechanisms that preserve privilege and the elite system and made me think about Kingdon's description of policy entrepreneurs. It reminded me that we need a stronger discussion about power and privilege when talking about policy windows and policy entrepreneurs. It matters who the policy entrepreneurs are, it matter who they are connected to, which provides a critical analysis of what and whose values are being promoted, and the wider democratic principles that we are trying to promote.

I found very interesting chapter 10 of Kingdon’s book. I think it is a very good exercise to revisit the proposed theoretical model and elaborate on its weakness, even though it is still a little bit outdated. I want to expand in two issues presented in the mentioned chapter. First, Kingdon argues that two competing theories (evolutionism and punctuated equilibrium) actually can be incorporated in his model because they help explaining different features. This flexibility allows any theory to be quite useful in very complex scenarios such as public policy. There is not only one form to explain the issue.

Second, is that institutions do matter. The concept of institutions as rules of the game (both formally and informally constituted) is very appealing to explain how policy agendas and alternatives are set. Nowadays, the interconnectivity produced by globalization and information technologies as well as more available information are demanding a more structured form of incorporating new institutions to the system. These new institutions have to adapt in a quicker pace that its predecessors, have to enforce more positive and negative rewards for complying or defying, and should be socialized into different economical, social and cultural contexts.

Kingdon discusses how the policy window open and close , how solutions come to be coupled with problems,proposals linked with political exigencies, and alternatives introduced when the agenda changes. I found the idea "coupling" very interesting but also question its feasibility.

In case of gun control,some policy alternatives may linked to this case. For example,inadequate parental education, under-funding public school system and over expanding interesting group power and influence on national politics. We can see the recent school shooting drew Obama administration's attention and managed to put gun control issue on the agenda.However, other relevant issues are still under table. It seems like focusing event is the effective way to put itself on the agenda in the past decades but they only attracted attention and further investment of money and energy is still awaiting.

From a historical perspective, an interesting policy window case study is the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. William Wilberforce, an MP during the late 18th century, consistently presented a bill every legislative session for several years to abolish the slave trade. In 1789, during the beginning of his anti-slave trade campaign, Wilberforce had an opportunity to first present the bill, however, due to external circumstances regarding his health was unable to. Many scholars, looking back at this moment, believe that Wilberforce could have passed the anti-slave trade bill in this session and view it as a missed opportunity when the policy window was open. In fact, it took nearly twenty more years after that date for the policy window to open again on the issue and result in the passage of the bill abolishing the slave trade. This is not surprising seeing as Kingdon mentions that policy windows open infrequently and only for a short period of time. Interestingly enough, Wilberforce never coupled the issue of the slave trade with any other problem. It was always its own entity, which could be why it took so long to garner support for it's passage or raise it to a place of prominence on the agenda.

A similar note, it took the United States 100 years to seriously revisit civil rights after slavery was abolished following the Civil War. Although it was common knowledge that Jim Crow and separate but equal were anything but equal, it took the convergence in the 1960's of a number of streams including the voluntary expulsion of the Dixiecrats from the democratic party (led by our own HHH), the Great Society, the election of a sufficiently liberal administration (JFK and Johnson) and the emergence of charismatic movement leaders like MLK and Malcolm X to bring the issue to the surface of the public opinion pool. It is interesting how infrequent these windows open for particular issues; it kind of takes the planets aligning for some things to make it on the agenda let alone pass into law.

I found Shen’s discussion about policy coupling with the gun control issue very interesting. One big policy issue she did not mention, that was coupled with the gun control debate especially following recent mass shootings is mental health. Mental health was pushed as another problem contributing to the gun violence crisis in the U.S. However, since the policy window for gun control has opened and the Obama administration has laid out their plan for legislation, the mental health issue has faded into the background. Perhaps this is because there aren’t readily available policy alternatives to deal with mental health as it relates to gun violence, but there are alternatives available for stricter regulation of guns and ammunition? Hence, the problem stream has not found the policy or the politics stream. It will be interesting to see if this comes back on the agenda or fades away from the debate.

I found Kingdon's discussion on coupling of streams particularly interesting. It seems issues can re-emerge several times in different forms, depending on the national mood, key advocates and political players, and windows of opportunity among many other factors. I am rather curious to know, however, if and/or how policymakers, entrepreneurs, and others can deliberately frame their ideas to fit within multiple streams. By doing so, they may make for a more compelling argument, and thus, increase the chances that their interests secure a spot on the governmental - and eventually decision - agendas.

I also agree with Marissa's assessment that the discussion of mental health has faded in relation to other features of the gun control debate. Within the Kingdon context I wonder if this might also be due to differences of problem identification within the problem stream, for example that gun violence is due to lack of proper background checks versus the instability of select individuals. Regardless of how it is conceptualized, I do think that it is clear that policy makers are struggling with complexity of this important factor in the national gun debate.

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