Strategies of an Effective Issue / Policy Entrepreneur

Politics is more of an art than a science; meaning, politics is more likely to be infused as normative policy and value-laden issues, rather than a ranking of logical choices by logical actors for logical ends. After all, policy-making in the United States is built within a democratic framework—based upon the voting people—and the people differ in their values and daily necessities. Wasn’t President Obama’s 2nd inaugural address an example of agenda setting; of values setting–the question is how fast will we work to solve climate change, allow Gays to marry, and expunge the need for war.

By definition, public policy in a democracy is decision-making for the public—by the people. As politics is more of an art than a science, it follows that an effective issue/policy entrepreneur will be more of an artist than a scientist. Clearly, agendas and issues are shaped by perceived values and necessities more so in a democracy than in a dictatorship, precisely because pluralism encourages multifaceted decision agendas for multifarious minorities. And in this ocean of diversity, policy entrepreneurs encompass countless opportunities.

An effective issue/policy entrepreneur will have multiple strategies available to him or her to influence agenda setting, policy formation, and policy implementation. These strategies are utilized for the purpose of pushing an issue or a particular definition of an issue, or a solution to an issue, onto the decisional agenda. The issue/policy entrepreneur strategies will encounter many factors inherent in the decisional agenda process that are likely to bear on the success, or failure, of the effort. In short, this paper will explore effective issue/policy entrepreneur strategies, best practices to overcome obstacles intrinsic to the decisional agenda, and, indeed, enable issue/policy entrepreneurs with strategic insight.

An effective issue/policy entrepreneur will first understand the public policy game. The Stages Model purports a linear (and overly simplistic) manner for the entrepreneur to follow and engage. First, problems that the government must solve are displayed on the decisional agenda; second, there is debate and formation of a winning policy-solution; third, the policy is implemented by the bureaucracy. In this linear and causal structure, the policy entrepreneur might offer more credible agenda issue(s), better solutions to the issue(s) on the agenda, and tactical implementation strategies. However, the Stages Model often left the policy entrepreneur handing the legislature a phillips head screwdriver when they needed a flathead. Indeed, Lowi found, “policies determine politics” (1972, 299). Thus, the Stages Model errantly presupposes a rational and linear manner to solve the peoples’ problems, and the issue/policy entrepreneur should not assume that next years decisional agenda will develop according to a rational plan.

An effective issue/policy entrepreneur must be aware of the type of policy on the agenda—or the type of policy that they would like to place on the decisional agenda. Lowi determined that policies could be categorized as distributive (distribute benefits and costs on an individual basis), redistributive (e.g. Welfare, Medicare, Social Security), constituent (reapportionment, agency), and regulatory (influence denizens/corporations through coercion/fines). Lowi found that the regulatory issues were by far the most contentious and unstable in the bargaining within the legislature. The policy entrepreneur, thus, may be able to create more leverage within the regulatory decision agenda—aligning with partisans who strongly act upon the decisional agenda. However, a weakness of Lowi’s Typology framework (and the Stages Model) is that it does not provide the policy entrepreneur with substantive policy information.

Substantive policy information may be hidden to an issue/policy entrepreneur by actors seeking to maximize factional interests. Indeed, Simon (1947) found that policy actors do not operate with complete information, and logically could not possibly execute excellent cost-benefit analysis without complete information. Thus, actors operate with bounded rationality because of cognitive limitations; however, “bounded rationality is not irrationality” (Simon, 1985, 297). Yet, what issue/policy entrepreneurs may learn from bounded rationality is that there is implicitly an opportunity to play the part of expert—to provide the solution. However, legislators operating under bounded rationality may be overwhelmed by a comprehensive solution from an issue/policy entrepreneur. Thus, the issue/policy entrepreneur may focus on a strategy to tweak the decisional agenda.

The effective issue/policy entrepreneur must determine when to influence the decision-making process as a unique event (i.e. let’s fund a bridge to no-where) or as a small change to the structure of a policy (i.e. require contractors building bridges to use this particular certified cement mixture). Respectfully, Lindblom articulated a “root” and “branch” policy decision-making process (1959, 81). This process theorizes that public policy changes in incremental steps due to bounded rationality. However, the issue/policy entrepreneur who only attempts to influence the decision agenda via incremental steps might very well lose their job once a big shift in public policy occurs—even if they have a few incremental success stories.

Issue/policy entrepreneurs must be aware of large shifts in public policy. These shifts allow for many issue/policy entrepreneurs to fight for a new decisional agenda. Jones, Baumgartner, and True discovered that policy is often vulnerable to major shifts. After a punctuated shift occurs, then the public policy may incrementally address areas of need. The authors called this theory: punctuated equilibrium. It resembles the analysis of Kuhn’s famous postulation regarding paradigms and paradigm shifts. Accordingly, a paradigm is a family of explanations regarding a subject. However, over time, scientists find anomalies in the paradigm and research why they exist.

An explanation of the anomalies often leads to shifts in the paradigm, and sometimes leads to a replacement of the paradigm. In this way, issue/policy entrepreneurs should realize that Jones, Baumgartner, and True replaced Lindblom to a large degree; and; importantly, that they will also likely be replaced. The entrepreneur must be aware that large shift can take place at any time, and large shift often require large solutions. Indeed, a large shift often creates a new agenda setting slate.

Agenda setting, in general, is the process of ordering topics for decision makers to adopt or deny. Issue/policy entrepreneurs may seek to influence agenda setting through policy subsystems and issue networks. The former is pluralistic by nature, whereas all interest groups attempt to successfully influence the appropriate legislators—the one’s that write and vote on the new laws. To be sure, subsystems theory encourages the role of issue/policy entrepreneur within a think tank, public and private organizations, research institutes (i.e. Wayne State)—even Joe the Plumber!

Conversely, Heclo (1978) found that issue networks are in-between the pluralistic character of policy subsystems theory and the undemocratic Iron Triangle Theory (i.e. alliances between Congress, Bureaucracy, and Interest Groups which exclude outsiders). Issue networks are important to issue/policy entrepreneurs because they reflect the will of a group of people upon a specific issue—as the issue rises, so does the influence of the group. The issue/policy entrepreneur must familiarize themselves with the issue networks if s/he is to be successful. Issue/policy entrepreneurs working in the midst of subsystems must understand how to access and leverage multiple political access points. Indeed, it is often the changing definition of an issue which causes punctuated equilibrium.

Effective issue/policy entrepreneurs may attempt to punctuate the policy equilibrium. This has been accomplished through venue shopping, expanding the scope of conflict (Schattschneider), and mobilization of people/groups. Venue shopping refers to the attempt of an issue/policy entrepreneur to move the issue under review to the agency that will most likely provide a sympathetic response. For example, Civil Rights activists stopped seeking legislative redress from the Congress in the 1950s, though the Congress had provided them with constitutional amendments almost a century prior. Instead, Civil Rights Activists sought redefine the issue at the Court, and, they won.

However, the implementation of Brown v. Board of Education was not so readily enforced in the South. In this case, the Civil Rights movement expanded the scope of conflict. Soon thereafter, Martin Luther King was marching and boycotting in Birmingham, Whites were coming from the North to register eligible Black voters, etc. Importantly, the venue soon changed from the Supreme Court to the Congress. Over and over (perhaps in a leptokurtic distribution), the conflict expanded—until federal troops once again restored domestic tranquility, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, today the issue of affirmative action is still handled by competing issue/policy entrepreneurs.

Successful venue shopping, expansion of the scope of conflict (Schattschneider), and mobilization of the appropriate people/groups ultimately depend on the image of the issue/policy. The entrepreneur may utilize the media, political actors, and citizens to shift the issue/policy image. For example, Pralle (2006) eloquently illuminated through discourse convergence (i.e. context matters) how loggers held the advantage in the policy debate when the issue of cutting down trees in Clayoquot Sound was defined as an economic matter (i.e. jobs); however, environmentalists owned the results when people framed the issue as negative ecological forestry.

In this case, issue/policy entrepreneurs for the logging industry attempted to keep the image local, while the environmental issue/policy entrepreneurs went global. Of particular salience, the environmentalists researched their global audience. For instance, the English love animals, so the environmentalists showed pictures of animals losing their homes; the Germans love trees (acid rain destroyed some of their forests), so the environmentalists showed images of massive clear cutting—and the environmentalists won. The image presented by the environmental issue/policy entrepreneurs swayed people through emotive symbols and language, and the issue remained global—causing the decisional agenda to capture and adopt the environmentalists’ policy. This example may very well create a long-term policy (equilibrium) in Clayoquot Sound, because once the policy issue image is defined, the decision shall not likely change until it is overpowered with a new image.

John Kingdon (1995) found that issue/policy entrepreneurs ought understand the good theory of the Stages Model, but realize that in practice alternative selection occurs (sometimes randomly), and too often the process is best described de facto as chaotic competition between policy communities. As a response to this understanding, Kingdon analyzed when the decisional agenda (predecisions was the unit of analysis) was manipulated and reorganized by the most relevant actors (i.e. congressmen).

Kingdon (1995) found that there are three separate “streams” by which policy issues reach the decisional agenda: problems, policies, and politics. For example, problems may become salient via focusing events, such as the Three Mile Island disaster. Then, policies are quickly created to address the problem(s). Finally, the political component is based upon the mood of the elected officials and public opinion—politicians will vote for an issue that will surely remove themselves from office via constituents’ electoral vote. Thus, when the three streams converge, then the issue/policy entrepreneur has a real chance to successfully influence the decisional agenda.

The convergence of Kingdon’s three streams creates a policy window. Though the window may only be open for a short time, the point is that the decisional agenda is active and some issue/policy entrepreneur(s) will become winners and losers. Successful issue/policy entrepreneurs will create the most appropriate policy image to address the policy problem faced by politicians. They will attempt to weaken images that are in competition to their goals, and also expand the scope of conflict in order to mobilize the appropriate citizens. Most importantly, effective issue/policy entrepreneurs constantly, and energetically, connect the three streams in the public policy arena. They will showcase focusing events—even when the public has limited knowledge or affection regarding the event. This is partly why kingdom found policy solutions to be like floating fragments waiting to be picked up in the “policy primordial soup” (1995, 116). In this way, issue/policy entrepreneurs must create the most appealing chuck of legislation to be picked up by the decisional venue.

Issue/policy entrepreneurs may also affect the decisional agenda by altering existing biases, changing participants, changing the scope of the conflict, and containing the conflict when necessary. Existing biases naturally exist in a pluralistic society due to the heterogeneous factors incumbent within its structure, so the issue/policy entrepreneur should direct the timing/rising of who, what, and when choice opportunities arise. Changing participants may be constructed through institutions (rules and norms that govern decision-making). Changing participants will then alter the existing biases. Dr. Elder was right, “Institutions matter because they constrain or expand venue shopping and the policy making process” (Speech, October 3, 2011). Finally, the scope of conflict involves framing the significance of the issue, specificity/concreteness of the topic, complexity/technicality of the issue, and the temporal relevance. Winners contain the conflict, losers expand the conflict.

Successful policy entrepreneurs play an important role in drawing attention to a problem through advocacy. The literature predicts that policy entrepreneurs who engage coupling (i.e. linking policy problems and solutions) are more likely to impact their respective level of government. Policy entrepreneurs may arise from grassroots organizations, which adhere to the pluralist and democratic model. For example, Lois Gibbs was a New York housewife who lived near the Love Canal. She was instrumental in creating a focusing event regarding toxic waste—and toxic waste soon became an issue on the national agenda. Indeed, her actions directly led to the E.P.A.s superfund for locating and removing toxic waste dumps in America. However, even though issue entrepreneurs are crucial in the process of agenda-setting, because of their championing of issue advocacy (with substantial risk of failure); probability shows that the policy advocated by the issue entrepreneur will likely not get on the decisional agenda.

In conclusion, the issue/policy entrepreneur must be aware that the predictive power of public policy theory is still quite limited—literally—under the frame of bounded rationality. The Stages Model, Lowi’s Typology, Incrementalism, and Punctuated Equilibrium offer little predictive power for the issue/policy entrepreneur; however, they do provide ample direction for inroads that the issue/policy entrepreneur may travel to affect the decisional agenda. In order to be effective, the issue/policy entrepreneur must wade within the three policy streams and react quickly once the policy window opens. S/he must align the appropriate policy definition and the proper policy image with the desired decisional agenda. Issue/policy entrepreneurs are either “losers” or “winners” and may fight through emotive symbols, changing participants, issue redefinition, altering existing biases, expanding/containing the scope of conflict, and/or discourse convergence.

Politics is more of an art than a science; and, deferentially, an issue/policy entrepreneur may find that s/he is a loser with Generation X, but a winner with Millennials. Image may be everything, but in our post-positivist and pluralistic world—one consumed under bounded rationality—image means something different to everybody. In brief, this paper has provided the strategies necessary for an issue/policy entrepreneur to become effective with respect to the decisional agenda.

Baumgartner and Jones, “Agenda Dynamics and Policy Subsystems,” Journal of Politics, 53 (November, 1991), pp. 1044-1074.

Behn, “Policy Analysis and Policy Practice,” Policy Analysis, 7 (Spring, 1981), pp. 199-226.

Gailmand and Jenkins, “Negative Agenda Control in the Senate and House,” Journal of Politics, 69, 3 (August, 2007), pp. 689-700.

Jones, “Bounded Rationality and Political Science” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 13, 4 (2003), pp. 395-412.

Jones, et al., “The Destruction of Issue Monopolies in Congress,”American Political Science Review, 87 (Sept., 1993), pp. 657-671.

Kingdon, “Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,” in J. Shafritz., et al. (eds.), Classics of Public Policy, 2005, pp. 148-159.

Lindblom, “The Science of Muddling Through,” Public Administration Review, 19 (Spring, 1959), pp. 78-88.

Lustick, “Explaining the Variable Utility of Disjointed Incrementalism,” American Political Science Review, 74 (June, 1980), pp. 343-353.

Peters, “Cost-Benefit Analysis,” in B. Guy Peters, American Public Policy, 6th ed., 2004, pp. 447- 461.

Pralle, Sarah. Branching Out, Digging In: Environmental Advocacy and Agenda Setting. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006.

Rich and Weaver, “Advocates and Analysts: Think Tanks and the Politicization of Expertise,” in A. Cigler and B. Loomis (eds), Interest Group Politics, 5th ed., 1998, pp. 235-254.

Smith, Kevin B., and Christopher W. Larimer. The Public Policy Theory Primer. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2009. Print.

Theodoulou, Stella Z., and Matthew Alan Cahn. Public Policy: the Essential Readings. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995. Print.

Thurber, “Dynamics of Policy Subsystems in American Politics,” in A. Cigler and B. Loomis (eds.), Interest Group Politics, 3rd ed., 1991, pp. 319-343.


One thought on “Strategies of an Effective Issue / Policy Entrepreneur

  1. Pingback: “Course Pack” for Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Course | Political Pipeline

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