As I sat down to finish writing my second blog entry for “People, Spaces, and Deliberation” -- which was to be a discussion of two contrasting approaches to deliberation in the European Union in 2007 -- Anne-Katrin’s entry on John Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (1984) caught my eye. Then Sina’s ensuing entry drew my attention further away from deliberation in the EU and right smack into Kingdon’s processual world of problems, policies, and politics streaming together and apart. I sympathized vigorously with Anne-Katrin’s disquiet about the limited purview given to media’s influence on policy agenda setting by Kingdon. I concurred strongly with Sina’s trenchant reflections on how well (or poorly) Kingdon’s framework travels from advanced democracies to developing country contexts.
Then, having taught Kingdon to public policy students several years ago at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a flood of hitherto buried thoughts came back to light, like Rip van Winkle awakening from two decades’ stupor. Sina is dead-on about the elegance of Kingdon’s framework. Surely its simplicity and parsimony helps to account for its great longevity. Yet elegance -- at least in the social sciences -- is rarely achieved without cost. Most obvious among these costs in Kingdon’s case are what is missed because a more nuanced reality is simply ruled out by assumption (e.g., indirect media effects, as discussed in Anne-Katrin’s post) and what is missed because the context for one’s study is limited to terra cognita (e.g., the policy process in the United States, as discussed in Sina’s post).
Other blind spots in Kingdon’s arguments and analyses also come to mind. At risk of caricature or unfair rendering, for instance, one implication of a “garbage can” approach of policy processes is a potentially alarming neutrality and relativism between any two policy alternatives (Are torture and human rights really on equal footing as post-9-11 policy alternatives but for, in Kingdon’s terms, concerns with technical feasibility and budget constraints? Does the intrinsic value of a policy alternative count for naught, beyond the relative value of that alternative to a particular policy community?). Another example of a commonly raised criticism to Kingdon is the limited utility of a model of “organized anarchy” in explaining sweeping, systemic policy reforms, such as the New Deal or Great Society programs in the U.S. context?
The point of raising these rejoinders is not to tender a comprehensive critique of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy. Truth be told, I like this book. A lot. Rather, my aim is to identify and elaborate briefly on what I see as a persistent general limitation of American political science scholarship on the policy-making process, of which Kingdon’s book is emblematic. Namely, Kingdon and most other works in this area typically assume a kind of domesticated (for lack of a better way of putting it) pluralist politics in which the role of public opinion is limited, by and large, to formal, regularized inputs into elections. Within these pluralist rules of the game, it is certainly true, as Sina points out, that elections must have some integrity to function as proxies for “public opinion.” To the extent that elections in many developing country contexts are a sham or a ritual, the possibility for genuine bottom-up inputs into policy-making processes are severely limited.
[Note here that even in so-called “mature democracies” like the U.S., competitive elections are an increasingly rare occurrence and from that fact, we should either have to infer that there are no rascals in American politics or that U.S. public opinion, in the aggregate, is so invariant or impassive as to be incapable of throwing the rascals out. Both inferences ought to strain credulity.]
Recognizing the limiting pluralist foundations of much scholarship in this area, starting with Kingdon, is urgent because part of the promise of social movements and social accountability mechanisms is that public inputs into the policy-making process can be sustained and substantive, far beyond the view of public opinion found in Kingdon. This is a promise that is regularly nourished with evidence of successful groundswells and grassroots mobilization across the developed and developing worlds. In Kingdon, I see two specific constraints in how public opinion is viewed.
-- First, Kingdon limits public inputs to metrics like pre-election polls, post-election vote counts, and “national mood” (an aggregative and majoritarian kind of opinion).
-- Second, Kingdon limits public opinion to a role in the “politics stream” of public policy-making, with no place or mention of public opinion’s role in the other two streams, problem definition and the specification of policy proposals.
The consequence of these constraints is that institutionalized inputs beyond elections, like social accountability initiatives, and non-institutionalized inputs, like social movements, seem to have no place. These more bottom-up inputs are key ingredients not just as a factor in shaping the political backdrop to public policy-making. Rather, they are also potential keys to defining problems and specifying policy alternatives. On the former, citizen report cards, right-to-information movements, and participatory expenditure tracking initiatives are, after all, a kind of indicator and feedback. Moreover, non-electoral forms of participation from deliberative town hall meetings to mass protests can produce focusing events and evoke powerful symbols.
Social accountability mechanisms and social movements are also potentially key to specifying policy alternatives. Participatory budgeting can, after all, help to define “tolerable costs” and “value acceptability,” which Kingdon sees as keys to the policy stream. Participatory mechanisms, furthermore, can disrupt existing boundaries that define policy communities by de facto opening up the borders to these communities. Social movements, if they are sustained enough, can also help to re-structure how (bounded) policy communities view the costs and benefits of particular policy alternatives. Sanjeev Khagram’s Dams and Development (2004), for instance, beautifully demonstrates the ability of transnational movement activism to reconfigure policy schemas that equated dams with development.
Some may object to calling social accountability initiatives or social movement politics a form of public opinion. Certainly, I take a more robust, multimodal conception of public opinion as a precondition to accepting a more expansive view of how problems are defined, policy proposals are specified, and political contexts are shaped. Ultimately, Kingdon’s focus on elite institutions and “policy entrepreneurs” is too narrow to account for decision-making in what Sina calls “less settled polities.” For a framework like Kingdon’s to be both more true to empirical reality and more useful to “plan interventions smartly” (again, borrowing from Sina’s post), we need to identify the points of entry for non-institutional actors and grassroots outsiders to influence the policy-making process.