Policy dynamics: academics explain policy change

Policy dynamics: Academics explain policy change

“Policy dynamics” is the term public policy academics give the patterns of policy change on an issue. For example, the pattern could be incremental, that is little changes on a regular basis (see Lindblom, 1959). It could occur when politics, policy and problems align to create a policy window (Kingdon, 1984) and advocacy coalitions come together (Sabatier), leading to pattern of long periods of stability followed by short bursts of activity. This is known as ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (Baumgartner & Jones, 1991).

I’ve developed by own model of policy dynamics based on patterns in environmental policy making in NSW from 1995-2010. The pattern involves an initiating event (for example, a crises, new scientific information about an issue, entrepreneurs making the connection to government or a change in political ideology) triggering policy activity. Activity is accelerated by increased knowledge and awareness, including the success of policy entrepreneurs, effective policy venues, taking over other issues, complexity, expansion in scope and further crises. Policy activity peaks as dampeners kick in: the issue is reframed, public and government attention wains (possibly a backlash), the policy is considered a success, or a change in the ideology of the governing party, or fatigue takes hold (a sense that policy cannot work due to the complexity of the issue). That is, a complex combination of factors is generally responsible for the movement on an issue, either impetus or constraint (Kingdon 1984: 78). Combinations of these dampeners speed up the shutting down process until there is no policy activity.

Policy activity is often continual or ongoing for long periods of time. The rate of policy change can be slow or fast, but stability (equilibrium) is rare and short. This inaction is a function of dampeners operating below-the-line. Further work on the policy issue is triggered again by a new initiating event.

Assuming the problem is something that government feels is in their power, they will attempt to construct policy around it. In this ‘active’ mode government will attempt to make as much of its efforts as is possible to address an issue. In some circumstances this will not result in high levels of policy activity because of the policies created are few but have a high impact or because affected stakeholders are successful in applying dampeners.

I’m thinking of calling this the adaptive elasticity model based on the elasticity in the demand for policy change on an issue (borrowing from the term elasticity in economics). In physics, elasticity refers to the combination of external forces with internal forces that tend to return the material to its original shape. In this case, the material is the inherent pattern in policy dynamics. The forces shaping the demand for policy change are not constant, so it is important to recognise the nature of policy dynamics is adaptive. What do you think?

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