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Public Opinion, Pluralism and Public Policy-Making

Taeku Lee's picture

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.


I have not directly read John Kingdon's 'Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy', but I have encountered it through a secondary rendering by N. Henry in his book 'Public Administration and Public Affairs' (New Dehli: Prentice-Hall, 1999). What is important about Henry's rendering is that he contrasts 'organised anarchy' with a range of other theoretical approaches towards policy-making. He invokes the elite/mass, group, systems, institutionalist and neo-institutionalist models of public policy as a process. Of course, there are other approaches that look at policy-making as an output. I refer to these models in order to argue that it is important to triangulate our theoretical understandings of how the policy process plays out in different contexts. As such, I can connect with the notion of 'organised anarchy' at some level. For example, in the post-1990s period, sub-Saharan Africa has seen the emergence of 'organised' civil society which has certainly begun to engage in policy debates about a whole range of issues -- political pluralism, poverty reduction, human development, etc. There is some evidence to demonstrate how such civil society policy activism has influenced policy-making and legislation, at least in such countries as South Africa and Zambia. This is not to downplay the role of the so-called 'unorganised' civil society in influencing the policy process. More often, civil soceity tends to have some in-built 'organisation' which comes to the fore in times of cataclysmic change. It is at that point that we begin to see some form of 'structure', which we equate with 'organised-ness'. There are already different forms of organic organisation within the deepr recesses of civil society which may not become immediately apparent to us. That was a digression. To return to my point: although I see some applicability in Kingdon's 'organised anarchy' even to the 'unsettled politics' of the developing world, it is clear to me that policy-making in most such 'unsettled politics' revolves around the 'elite/mass' and 'institutionalist' models of policy-making. My own doctoral work was concerned with unravelling the degree to which such theoretical constructs could be applied to community broadcasting in Zambia. As we all seem to be suggesting, the media are important to the policy process, although it is by no means settled as to the degree of that importance. Media, as they are currently structured and operated in most of Africa, are likely to have less influence on the policy process. For example, state ownership of most broadcasting tends to constrain the institution of public broadcasting. Commercial ownership of media is equally problematic. However, we cannot assume absolutist positions on either state or commercial ownership of media. We know, for example, that some privatised and commercialised radio stations in Mali, Senegal, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia have contributed towards opening up the public space or sphere for public debate, through live talk shows, among other programme genres. In Zambia, the privately owned, commercial Post newspaper has been instrumental in exposing instances of grand corruption and galvanising public and political support for anti-corruption policies and legislation. There are thus anecdotes which demonstrate the actual and potential influence of media on public opinion formation in sub-Saharan African countries. But we still need to understand media influence in a more sophisticated fashion in order to come to grips with its possible 'power'. In general, what we know about media 'influence' is informed by studies conducted in the largely American 'media effects' research tradition. This tends to emphasise what media do to people. Here, we can perhaps isolate such approaches as the magic bullet/hypodermic needle, two-step (now 'multi-step'), diffusion of innovations, agenda-setting, uses and gratifications as well as cultivation models. It seems to me that we seem to understand the place of media in Kingdon's 'organised anarchy' schema in terms of what media can do to public opinion, reproducing the 'media effects' tradition. I think the question should probably be what people do to media. Put differently: how is public opinion formed despite media? For people actively appropriate media in terms of their specific cultural locales. It is for this reason that most political-economic scholars and activists in the US -- Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Robert W. McChesney, etc. -- think little of commercial media's influence on public deliberation, policy and democracy. Media serve their own interests. However extreme some of the political-economic thinking might be, especially Chomsky's 'propaganda model', it still helps us to understand how anti-democratic and anti-deliberation media can be. In turn, this political-economic turn is linked to the largely European critical-theoretical perspective of cultural studies. This approach places the media within a wider cultural context. It tends to invoke the notion of the 'circuit of culture', in which media are seen in terms of how they are locked into questions of production, consumption, representation, identity and regulation. To understand the influence of media on public opinion and public policy, we must unravel how media are produced, consumed and regulated. We must also understand the identity politics within which media are implicated and how they imbricate those identity politics. We must understand the social context in which media are regulated. This might relate to questions of the kinds of media policies in place in any given country. I believe this culturalist analysis of media and policy is much more sophisticated and does not take anything for granted. Under this logic, we can problematise the 'streams' identified by Kingdon, in as far as they involve media. Who owns such media? Whose 'agendas' do they represent? What is the context within which they operate? How do people generally read media messages? To what extent can we say they are truly 'influenced' by the media? Is the media's role confined to that of conveying information? Is that possible, given the politics and economics of media production? In a word: I am inviting a more nuanced, context-based approach towards understanding media influence on the policy process. This leads me to the next point about the role of participatory media in influencing policy processes. I have undertaken research of the so-called 'radio listening clubs' in Malawi and Zambia. I have analysed my findings in terms of the 'development-communication' model. Here, I must explain that my construction of this model is in terms of the more pluralistic, participatory and democratic approach to mediation and communication. It also draws upon an Afrocentric epistemic and ontological distancing from 'received' understandings of media and communication. It helps me to affirm different ways of understanding and measuring media influence on social processes. I have come up with interesting findings which seem to reinforce the idea that media work best when they are produced within the context of citizenship. They provide a more inclusive and participatory public sphere. For anyone that might be keen on my research article, I can find ways of disseminating it. It has been published in the South African journal COMMUNICARE. Prof. Fackson Banda SAB LTD-UNESCO Chair of Media & Democracy Department of Journalism & Media Studies Rhodes University Grahamstown SOUTH AFRICA

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