Beyond Metaphors: New Research on Agendas in the Policy Process

Barry Pump

Research on agenda setting seems to have arrived at a second stage in its development. In recent years, it has moved beyond both metaphors and popular units of analysis to study the mechanisms and dynamics of agenda setting in the public policy process. This essay synthesizes the last two years of research on agenda setting. It classifies the divergent work into three broad categories. The first focuses on information processing and punctuated equilibrium processes. The second addresses the attempts by scholars to move beyond subsystems as a unit of analysis. The third addresses the role of the bureaucracy in agenda setting, particularly during crises. The final section of the essay concludes by discussing future directions for research.


Academic work, like policymaking, is incremental in nature. Studies of agenda setting provide ample testimony to small but steady refinements to extant research. How organizations select the issues they address out of the potentially infinite number of alternatives is of central importance to understanding the policymaking process. And the academic literature about this process has in recent years moved beyond both metaphors and popular units of analysis to study the mechanisms and dynamics of agenda setting.

The theoretical foundations of the study of agenda setting, however, remain as firm as ever. Herbert A. Simon’s notion of bounded rationality provides the context for many public policy scholars’ conception of the agenda-setting process. In Reason in Human Affairs (1983), Simon identified four primary limitations of traditional microeconomic decision-making assumptions that include rationality and perfect information. First, individuals lack the ability to pay attention to every dimension of a problem at once. Second, decision-makers lack perfect information about their choices. Third, individuals face uncertainty about how their decisions will play out in the future. Finally, and perhaps as a function of the other limitations, individuals may not have access to complete knowledge of their own preferences.

Simon’s understanding of “boundedly rational” individual decision making provided early agenda setting scholars with a way of thinking about how institutions process information and select alternatives. Just as individuals struggled to see all the sides of a problem and select a solution with a minimum of future harm, organizations struggled with the complexity of issues and potential solutions’ prospects. Limited cognitive and organizational abilities led to the development of punctuated equilibrium theory (Baumgartner & Jones, 1993). This theory argues that the agendas of policymaking organizations are relatively stable until shocks produced outside of the organization lead to renewed focus and then frenzied policy activity to catch up with new demands. Punctuated equilibrium theory does not imply, however, that policymaking is static. It implies that policymaking in equilibrium is fairly predictable and incremental in nature.

Early work in punctuated equilibrium theory, however, did not make the connections between Simon’s theories of individual decision making and organizational decision making particularly clear. In an effort to clarify this analogy, recent work on punctuated equilibrium has tried to get under the hood and understand how limited decision making abilities lead to sudden bursts of policymaking activity. Scholars have focused on information and institutional “friction.” How information flows, or does not flow, through institutions can become a way of explaining the bursts of activity. Likewise, friction—understood as the varying costs of policymaking activities—can explain why there is a build up of activity and then the need to overcompensate in the event of a shock ( Baumgartner et al., 2009; Workman, Jones, & Jochim, 2009).

For punctuated equilibrium theories of agenda setting, the role of shocks or crises cannot be understated. They provide the quintessential open “window” for action among relevant policy actors (Kingdon, 2003). It may seem obvious that an event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina would upset the normal patterns of policymaking, altering the agenda significantly. But the actual mechanisms of the alteration have gone relatively unexamined until recently. In addition to developments in punctuated equilibrium and information theories, over the last two years there has been progress in thinking about how crises, or disruptions, affect policymaking ( May, Sapotichne, & Workman, 2009a,b).

One way crises can alter agenda setting is by exposing previously isolated “iron triangles,” “policy subsystems” or “issue networks” to new influences ( Jochim & May, 2010; Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009). Policy subsystems—regularized patterns of making policy with more or less connected sets of actors who share vocabularies and issue definitions—often operate parallel to each other. Crises can force the actors of one subsystem to suddenly work with the actors of another. Homeland security policy following 9/11 provides an example of this dynamic. Subsystems attendant to issues as diverse as food security and critical infrastructure suddenly became linked—in rhetoric if not in point of fact—through a new “regime” putatively focused on all hazards. Linked subsystems reduce the degrees of freedom policy actors have to set their own agenda.

Crises often underscore the complexity and interconnectedness of policy issues. In addition to refinements in punctuated equilibrium theory and the role of crises in agenda setting, policy scholars have recently started thinking carefully about the implications of so-called “boundaryspanning” problems (Boin, 2009; Lagadec, 2009).

It is clear, though, that the subsystem concept as a unit of analysis that has been pivotal in understanding how agendas are structured cannot fully capture the policymaking process around complex issues, such as the recent financial crisis, homeland security, critical infrastructure policy, or ocean health. Regimes may be one way of addressing these issues, but then the focus turns to how regimes process agenda setting demands differently than subsystems.

And finally, agenda setting research has begun to incorporate the bureaucracy in its theorizing (May, Workman, & Jones, 2008; Workman et al., 2009). Administrative agencies can serve as links between subsystems, and provide the institutional structure to build coherent regimes to address complex, or messy, policy problems. The bureaucracy can also serve as an agent in agenda setting processes, providing valuable information to political principals. Informational theories of the policy process as well as scholarship on crises and boundary-spanning problems benefit from the inclusion of the bureaucracy as a major component of agenda setting.

This essay synthesizes the last two years of research on agenda setting. It classifies the divergent work into three broad categories. The first focuses on information processing and punctuated equilibrium processes. The second addresses the attempts by scholars to move beyond subsystems as a unit of analysis. The third addresses the role of the bureaucracy in agenda setting, particularly during crises. The final section of the essay concludes by discussing future directions for research.

Agenda Processes

Rich metaphors and examples highlight the agenda setting literature. Indeed, punctuated equilibrium itself is a metaphor derived from evolutionary biology. Whereas most species adaptations take hold incrementally over millennia, others can do so in mere generations. Similarly, most policymaking is minor and done in relatively isolated policy communities over time, but yet, outside events can shock the system out of its incrementalist equilibrium and force rapid change. Given this broad theoretical outline of the policy process and agenda change, recent research has tried to examine the underpinnings of punctuations.

The latest work on punctuated equilibrium theory has focused on institutional “friction” in a comparative context. Baumgartner et al. (2009) note that governments are “master jugglers” that balance the competing issues seeking attention, but the juggling depends on institutional features with varying costs associated with their employment. While introducing a bill may be a relatively frictionless activity, gaining final passage of a major overhaul of the healthcare system is a much taller order, for example. Baumgartner et al. argue that friction facilitates punctuations, as political inputs into the policy process (such as public opinion or electoral outcomes) build up over time, slowly reaching a threshold at which point policymakers must play catch-up and over-respond to an issue. The result is a frenzy of policymaking activity (cf. Givel, 2010).

Baumgartner et al. (2009) find that as policy inputs move along the policy process there is increasing friction. This finding is irrespective of the type of govern- mental system (separated powers vs. Westminster-style parliaments, e.g.,): “Increasing institutional costs and the challenges of complexity produce increasingly punctuated series along the policy cycle regardless of institutional specifics” (Baumgartner et al., 2009, 615). This leads the authors to conclude that institutional design cannot mitigate all the limits of human rationality noted above, so punctuations are simply features of how organizations make decisions.

This latest iteration of punctuated equilibrium theory narrows in on the importance of information in the policy process. Agendas are not set by entrepreneurs or exogenous events alone. As Baumgartner et al. note, governments “do not react directly to the real world but to politically processed signals that are already affected by the friction associated with processes of social mobilization” (2009, p. 616). This means that issues are already “punctuated” politically before they reach the institutions of government.

Liu, Lindquist, and Vedlitz (2009) study the agenda setting surrounding climate change policy, an issue that has in many ways punctuated politically long before formal government action. They largely confirm extant theories, such as punctuated equilibrium, but they note that inertia and venue provide distinctions. For example, how much attention was paid to climate change at time2 was dependent on the attention at time1. Further, Congress’s attention to climate change was affected by increases in CO2 levels, while the media’s attention was directed by international focusing events—a distinction that Baumgartner et al.’s theory would not anticipate. This difference led Liu, Lindquist and Vedlitz to conclude that different venues, such as the president or T V media, may also process signals differently.

Related to that finding, Workman, Jones and Jochim note that how “political institutions organize themselves to process information presents opportunities for the generation of information” (2009, p. 83). The central problem with the pluralist American system, Workman, Jones and Jochim argue, is an oversupply of relevant information to policymakers, through congressional committees competing for issue definitions to administrative organizations sending signals about policy priorities to political principals. “Policymakers in the elected branches of government rely on the supply of information from the federal bureaucracy to inform policy decisions and political calculations, including the decision to become involved in the first place. Given this fact, the ways in which jurisdictional overlap and redundancy shapes the information supplied to higher levels of government (in the form of signals) become a very important topic for study” (Workman et al., 2009, 88).

The key contribution of information processing theory on agenda setting is the focus on both the sender and receiver of relevant policy signals. Each works in an environment that can expand or attenuate the flow of information. Workman et al. (2009) end with a vivid example of how this process could work with disastrous results: the occupation of Iraq. Bureaucrats in the Coalition Provisional Authority busily went about setting up a stock market in Baghdad despite extreme lapses in security. The C PA thought the problem confronting it was simply to establish a market economy, and it was unprepared to send signals about other problems. As a result, political policymakers were unable to prioritize information on the ground in Iraq and react accordingly.

Beyond Subsystems

Agenda setting theories normally evaluate how subsystem actors put their issues in front of relevant policymaking organizations. This subsystem research is a mainstay of the literature. Boscarino (2009) provides a recent example. She examines sustainable forest policy in the U.S. and discovers that policy entrepreneurs at the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society “problem surfed” their forestry solutions over time. Reinforcing Kingdon (2003), she finds that when economic concerns were of foremost importance in the early 1980 s, forestry policy advocates adopted economic language for their sustainable forest initiatives. Later in that decade, however, when water quality was highly salient, forestry advocates highlighted forests’ role in providing clean water. Advocates, then, try to attach their solutions to salient issues, surfing problems until their solution takes hold.

But the subsystem concept can only go so far to describe many contemporary problems facing policymakers. Subsystems are often interconnected. The nature of complex problems may require input from many—previously unlinked—subsystem players. Crises, too, can be important catalysts for subsystem interconnectedness. The result is a blurring of the boundaries that clearly demarcated subsystem expertise and concern. Boundary-spanning, or transboundary, policy problems present new challenges to the study of agenda setting.

Jochim and May (2010) argue that instead of thinking about policymaking in terms of subsystems, analysts should focus on the development (or lack thereof) of “policy regimes.” A regime could be visualized as a type of glue that links subsystems together to combat a transboundary policy problem. This glue could take the form of common ideas or vocabularies or integrative institutions of government. For example, Jochim and May view “drug criminalization” as a regime that linked law enforcement and treatment-oriented subsystems around “zero-tolerance” policies. Health professionals who viewed drug addiction as a disease to be treated rather than a crime to be punished often had to adopt the vocabulary of law enforcement rather than the other way around. The White House Office of Drug Control Policy and the Drug Enforcement Agency also provided institutional linkages.

Trans-subsystem dynamics make us reevaluate how many degrees of freedom policy actors have in setting their own agenda. Subsystem actors compete against each other for time on the larger, system-wide agenda in “normal” policymaking. When it comes to transboundary policy problems, however, the subsystems compete against related subsystems to highlight their particular dimension of a problem, and the linked subsystems then have to fight for consideration against other linked subsystems seeking to have their concerns addressed.

Jones and Jenkins-Smith (2009) understand how both issue salience and strategic manipulation of issue dimensions can affect agenda setting policy dynamics: “transmission of policy knowledge across previously unlinked subsystems is largely driven by policy entrepreneurs seeking advantage in policy advocacy through adapting elements of previously unused arguments (belief systems) drawn from other subsystems” (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, 42). They visualize a “policy topography”—a three-dimensional space in which policy actors and institutions are located in relation to one another. The dimensions of that space are the “ideological tendency” of the public at large (i.e., a left-right “public mood”), the scope of the issue (i.e., the size of the group affected by the outcome), and the issue’s salience generally. For Jones and Jenkins-Smith, the key to understanding trans-subsystem change is public opinion. Like other ACF scholars, they view public opinion as an external constraint and coalition resource, but they also view it as a source of internal shock.

Changes in public opinion have effects on issue salience and, largely within a subsystem, which dimensions of a problem are highlighted. Accordingly, “salience disruptions” and “dimensional shifts” become ways of understanding the linkages between subsystems. “Salience disruption is initiated by large-scale events that focus public attention on specific subsystems (or groups of them) and thereby generates enormous effort, resources, and change in those subsystems, while simultaneously drawing attention and resources away from others” (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, 42). Dimensional shifts, meanwhile, are functions of strategic manipulation. “The linked nature of subsystems virtually assures that important changes in key variables affecting one subsystem will have spillover effects in others within and across domains. The outcome of debates in one subsystem can become a threat to coalitions engaged in advocacy in other subsystems; similarly, these outcomes may become a resource for others” (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, 42).

Jones and Jenkins-Smith (2009) use the 9/11 terrorist attacks and climate change as examples of the trans-subsystem dynamics they intend to explain. The 9/11 terrorist attacks represented a “salience disruption” that upset the established ways of thinking about policy problems like immigration. They argue that immigration was previously considered in terms of economics, morality and government resources. After 9/11, immigration was framed as a security issue as policy entrepreneurs sought to “strategically navigate the newly formed policy topography” (Jones & Jenkins-Smith, 2009, 50). Climate change represents internally-driven trans-subsystem dynamics as agents of the air quality subsystem strategically linked with the electricity generation and then the renewable energy subsystems with eventual spillovers into weather and disaster management subsystems as the issue gained more attention.

Instead of Jochim and May’s (2010) idea that ideas, interests and institutions prompt the emergence of integrative policy regimes, Jones and Jenkins-Smith (2009) argue that opinion serves as the glue for subsystems dealing with transboundary policy problems. Mass opinion is a resource for elite policy actors. And while elite opinion undoubtedly influences mass opinion, elites are also constrained by how the public views their issues. In “good” times, public opinion or issue salience can be a resource entrepreneurs use to gain agenda access. Other times, entrepreneurs face an uphill battle against negative views or a lack of interest. A further constraint on policy entrepreneurs is the activity in other, linked subsystems. Strategies employed in one may provide valuable information for other subsystems with many linkages. Negative opinion of one subsystem’s issues may have ripple effects on other closely linked subsystems’ behavior.

Crises and the Bureaucracy

Another challenge that transboundary policy problems pose to agenda setting theory is the extent to which the bureaucracy fosters policy action. Traditional principal-agent accounts of the relationship between policymaker and bureaucrat are unidirectional: policymaker sends signal to bureaucrat, and bureaucrat implements. Yet, in complex policy environments like those found in the aftermath of widespread disruptions and crises, bureaucrats often have expertise that political masters can employ to make sense of messy problems. This gives the bureaucrat a promotion of sorts within the literature. As noted in Workman et al. (2009), administrative agencies are central components of agenda politics, and how they process new information affects the issues to which they pay attention.

“Salience disruptions” have repercussions on the bureaucracy. May et al. (2008) make this point by analyzing the bureaucratic response to preparedness policy before and after 9/11. Centralized authority within a bureaucracy amplifies the policy signals of political principals and leads to top-level attention, which crowds out attention to other issues. Delegated authority, meanwhile, dampen policy signals and leads to agenda stability (May et al., 2008, 521).

May, Workman and Jones document how the well-established Federal Emergency Management Agency initially processed terrorism after the 9/11 attacks as if it were just another problem to consider, despite the high level of political signaling by Congress and the president. Terrorism joined natural disasters, like hurricanes, to the list of issues F E M A processed simultaneously. After FEMA was rolled into the Department of Homeland Security, the centralized structure of DHS channeled attention almost exclusively to terrorism and crippled FEMA’s ability to respond to other types of disasters. After Hurricane Katrina, attention shifted marginally to include natural disasters as well.

In other words, what the bureaucracy pays attention to is conditioned by how the bureaucracy pays attention. Like public opinion, bureaucratic structure can constrain or empower policy entrepreneurs in building, and setting, an agenda. And this, too, can have ripple effects across subsystems—especially since administrative agencies can serve as a major linkage across subsystems.

While crisis and exogenous shocks are often pegged as the reason for agenda change, there is also evidence to suggest that subsystems can provide buffers that reduce the likelihood of upheavals following disruptions. May et al. (2009a,b) argue that the disruption of 9/11 did not result in heightened levels of policymaking or dramatic change in interest mobilization. They argue that shifts in mobilization and attention are selective, and not all subsystems are affected the same way. With regard to homeland security, subsystems related to food safety, technological hazards and natural disasters saw little difference in their patterns of behavior after 9/11—suggesting that “spillovers” between linked subsystems may be rarer than previously thought. Likewise, interests in subsystems that were not disrupted did not demonstrate a competitiveness that would otherwise be expected during a widespread disruption.

Homeland Security is a boundary-spanning problem, as its mission is broadly defined across issues related to terrorism, natural disasters, and to the protection of infrastructure. Yet the policymaking in each attendant subsystem is largely self-contained except for a couple of notable exceptions. Disruptions, then, may not have a dramatic affect on agendas, especially if policymaking before the disruption is not tightly linked across subsystems and is not particularly salient for the public at large.

What May et al. (2009a,b) identify, however, may be policymakers’ crude attempt to make sense of complex issues and impose—however arbitrarily—some structure to a policy space that is rapidly changing with new events. Boin notes that future crises are more likely to be “transboundary” in that subsystems are increasingly linked: “Modernization has created ‘highways for failure’ that leverage the effects of emerging threats (be they man-made or natural)” (2009, p. 370). Lawmakers’ strategy of “going to what they know” may improve response times, but it may also limit their ability to consider new ideas and learn from the past.

Lagadec makes the critical point that major crises require a new way of identifying what should occupy the agendas of major policy actors: “Emerging crises demand something else: the ability to spot the signs of phenomena that cannot be represented by any known model. In that case, the alert cannot be given automatically (as in an emergency) or largely preformatted (as in a known crisis), using preestablished principles” (2009, p. 479). But the problem with emerging crises is that signals to policymakers are virtually silent until it is too late to get ahead of a problem, and then, once signals are identified, they represent a threat to a status quo in which almost all parties are heavily invested. A remedy to this structural problem, Lagadec argues, is developing flexibility in policymaking, such as empowering bureaucrats as well as political leaders to develop creative solutions to emerging problems.

Conclusion: Future Directions

The literature on agenda setting has matured from developing concepts to analyzing the underpinnings of those concepts. This represents an important development in advancing scholars’ understanding of the policy process. Researchers now have a firmer foundation for testing hypotheses about agenda setting. Greater precision about the mechanisms of agenda setting and policy change also help to foster more comparative studies, so general patterns can be discerned regardless of institutional specifics.

Richer descriptions of the policy process have advanced knowledge of how policy entrepreneurs and officials set the agenda. Boscarino (2009) demonstrates how advocacy organizations search out problems to which to attach their preferred solutions. Liu et al. (2009) demonstrate how attention can differ across institutional venues. And Liu, Lindquist, Vedlitz, and Vincent (2010) show that local policymaking adds different contours to the current understandings, finding that coalition- and consensus-building influenced the policy process more than adversarial politics and public opinion. A renewed appreciation for the importance of venue on the agenda setting process is just one way richer descriptions have improved existing research.

Deeper theorizing about how bounded rationality produces policy punctuations has also emerged in the last two years. This theorizing has focused on institutional friction and information processing (Baumgartner et al., 2009; Workman et al., 2009). The increasing costs of policymaking activity as policy works its way through the process can mean inputs build up to critical thresholds and then cause a flurry of activity as policy makers act to catch up. How information is processed by political institutions also matters in the formulation of policies. This deeper theorizing has also included how the bureaucracy is prepared to send signals to political masters. May et al. (2008) focus on how the bureaucracy pays attention to policy issues and how that affects to what the bureaucracy pays attention. This increased attention to the bureaucracy advances the literature on agenda setting to include even more relevant players.

The bureaucracy is a critical component in understanding the linkages between policy subsystems, and how transboundary policy problems are addressed by connected policymaking institutions. Scholars have recently started moving beyond subsystems to describe how policymakers make sense of the complex issues confronting them. Jochim and May (2010) and Jones and Jenkins-Smith (2009) advance policy scholars’ understanding of how to think about these problems that connect several, previously insulated subsystems. For Jochim and May (2010), subsystems are linked by similar ideas, interests and institutions. For Jones and Jenkins-Smith (2009), public opinion is the glue that positions these subsystems in relation to one another.

While this new line of thinking about policymaking remains to be fleshed out, one element of it is clear: the problems facing policymaking communities are increasingly complex, and crises are often the greatest catalysts of transboundary policymaking. Boin (2009) and Lagadec (2009) argue that as crises increase in complexity, there is a new era of policymaking as a result. Modernization, Boin notes, has created “highways for failure” because of the complexity of networked systems (2009, p. 370). Flexibility in policymaking seems to be one way of averting catastrophe.

Yet, there is reason to doubt that widespread crises and interconnected policy regimes actually produce tightly-knit policymaking communities. May et al. (2009a,b) find that the disruption of the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not dramatically affect significant portions of the subsystems attendant to issues now grouped as “homeland security,” such as food safety. Their work forces scholars, again, to consider various nuances of subsystem dynamics. While transportation security subsystems were affected by 9/11, the food safety subsystem was not, despite the reorganization of both into the Department of Homeland Security. Theories of the policy process now have to include the possibility that widespread exogenous shocks produce differentiated policymaking processes.

For all the progress and increased richness in the study of the agenda setting process, however, there remain gaps. Some of the gaps relate to how agenda setting matters to policy adoption, and then, implementation. Other concerns relate to how to operationalize the mechanisms of agenda change. For example, do the president’s speeches really count as informative signals to the bureaucracy? Finally, how does agenda setting affect the durability of the legislation enacted?

Howlett (2009) makes the case that many policy scholars have inadequately accounted for the sequence in which policymaking events occur. New Institutionalists, then, are neglecting what American Political Development scholars can bring to the research table analytically: a focus on the role of time. Howlett (2009) argues that instead of focusing on path dependency and increasing returns, policy scholars should view events in the policy process as a series of reactions that do not necessarily produce “lock in” of certain patterns but may in fact reverse earlier events. So while Howlett’s critique extends to both New Institutionalists and APD scholars, it nevertheless presses all researchers to take time and the sequence of events seriously.

The role of time is particularly important when looking at the durability of legislation. Patashnik (2008) examines major reform efforts, and discovers that instead of increasing returns to a way of doing business, policy can destroy previous interests opposed to reform—remaking the landscape. His conclusions take aim at both the punctuated equilibrium model of policy change and other models of institutional design as well. For example, Patashnik examines the role of outside interest groups and their downstream effects, unlike those who only look at policy entrepreneurs. The limitations of punctuated equilibrium models is also apparent. Reform efforts, Patashnik finds, can vary in pace and across parts of a subsystem. And punctuations themselves differ in size and import. Studies like Patashnik’s are rare at this point, but reflect where implementation research is headed.

There seems to be endless variation in the politics of agenda setting and downstream developments. This variation poses a challenge to analysts seeking a way to create general predictive models of individual and organizational behavior. The challenges of complex problems and the often sclerotic nature of bureaucracy only add to the challenges. As a result, the policy process literature seems stuck between “grand theories that are not helpful and helpful theories that are not grand” (Weimer, 2008, 493).

Another potential challenge may be embedded in the literature analyzed above. The complexity of policy problems, the role of information in the policy process, and the speed at which problems change (think of the exponential rise in mean temperatures indicating climate change) all point to a reevaluation of existing theories of the policy process. Is the natural state of policymaking really slow, incremental change given how quickly problems arise and demand attention? Are rapid periods of change really interesting departures from the norm? Or will the changing nature of problems and issues lead to a changed policy process approach that reflects nearly continuous change? In science and policy studies alike there is a heightened interest in entropy, chaos, and complex adaptive systems as a way of approaching the challenge of continual change (see Bardach, 2008).

It is unclear, however, whether existing frameworks are inadequate to the task of addressing such a problem. System-wide agenda space will always be a scarce commodity and how policymakers’ attention to problems shifts focus is a central question in all extant theories, especially punctuated equilibrium theories of policy change. Periods of instability and change will always happen because of agenda scarcity. It is impossible for legislators and presidents to maintain concentration on all issues at once. It is unclear how other theories deal with the reality of the serial processing of policy problems, even when complex problems change and demand attention frequently.

The research over the last two years, however, seems to make clear that there are plenty of opportunities for firming up scholars’ understanding of the precise dynamics of agenda setting. Future efforts at doing so will have to be holistic in their accounts—taking full account of the roles and relationships between legislative actors as well as the bureaucracy and interest groups. Future efforts will have to address variation across and within subsystems, since some parts of policy change may move at different paces than others. They will also have to carefully track differences in policymaking according to varying venues. And finally, increasingly complex problems often prompt efforts at overarching regimes to make sense of related issues. Future research will have to investigate how regimes, as a unit of analysis, add to understanding of linked policymaking across subsystem boundaries.

The scholarship on the politics of agenda setting seems to have hit a second stage in its development. From grand theories of the policy process, recent research has narrowed the field to tractable questions. While questions about operationalization will remain, researchers appear to have moved away from metaphors and examples toward richer descriptions of activity that examine the underpinnings of the policy process.

Barry Pump is a Graduate fellow in the Center for American Politics and Public Policy, Department of Political Science, University of Washington, Seattle. His research focuses on the politics of economic policymaking.


1. Paper prepared for the 2011 Public Policy Yearbook.


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