How To Study the Agenda

Despite the fundamental importance of agenda setting, its study has not been subject to much analytical rigor nor has it received seminal experimental research. It is elusive, empirically and conceptually, but is still vital to understand as the point of departure for the policy making process. Still, we should not throw up our hands in utter confusion, but try to develop some basic concepts, distinctions, typologies, and models. Above all, we must inject agenda setting into the policy making process, even ground the cycle at the agenda stage. Above all, we must recognize how basic is agenda setting to the policy making process.

Agenda setting as a distinct analytical category is new to the field of public policy and has received little systematic attention. Recall how the policy process school of thought differs from the older institutional approach and the policy analysis method. They each treat agenda setting differently, if at all.

The institutional school sought to describe policy formulation through cases studies, not to develop systematic relationships between the policy making process and the surrounding task environment. Those case studies generally, not always. includes the rationale for policy-level attention. For example, energy was thrust upon the high-priority policy agenda through such external shocks as the 1973 OPEC oil and the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

The analytical school of policy science neglects this topic entirely. Agenda setting does not lend itself to neat and tidy models of applied mathematics, or wrest itself free from the values which contaminate scientific research, or provide real access to empirical data. For example, a leading text built around mathematical and statistical models (Nagel) does not include the term agenda in the table of contents or in chapter headings.

There is an obvious link between the applied mathematical techniques of policy analysis and agenda setting: queuing. Queuing is familiar to you: you stand on lines often, but recognize that decisions may be made as to capacity (the of tellers) or demand rate per unit of time (Friday lunch arrivals exceed Tuesday at 10:00 AM). An obvious point of departure is to treat this phenomenon systematically:

  1. Systemic problems appear at rate X. The problem solving capacity is rated at Y.

  2. If X > Y a crisis situation exists, in the sense of deterioration of the system as its carrying capacity is exceeded.

  3. To solve this crisis, either lower X, the rate at which problems get to the agenda, or raise Y, the capacity to process agenda throughput.

  4. Otherwise, nonissues and hypocrisy will substitute for real action. Citizens will feel excluded from government and intensify the feeling of cynicism toward government.

Thus, the basic political question raised in agenda-setting should be how to determine what was left off and why. Those who will bring more rigor to this field have some built-in difficulty which we will briefly explore. For those seeking an orderly raise of study, agenda setting may prove frustrating. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Agenda-setting is elusive to investigate, especially that which does not occur: The failure of an issue to make the agenda is especially intractable to discover. The cause of the null set is inexplicable to investigators. People with problems but not access to political power may not be able to got their concerns on the agenda at all. Why? Powerlessness is a ready, but elusive reply. Empowerment is the obvious but baffling remedy. Consider the case of urban renewal in New Haven (Dahl): the grievances of displaced minority people were left out of the housing and land use plan. It became a non-issue.

  2. The notion of just what is the appropriate agenda for government is ideologically charged, often emotionally laden. The rancorous debate between conservatives and liberals raises deeply held symbols. Conservatives wish to minimize governmental activities, cost, scope, and service. Liberals see a positive role for government as protector, regulator, transfer agent, and provider. The ideological conservative seeks a small list of agenda items, the liberal a far longer list. Each sees a different path for public policy. of course, each group knows that in addition to ideology, they represent a different set of constituents, each seeking to promote inharmonious interests. therefore different agenda items. Resolution is not in sight.

  3. Agenda-setting must raise the touchy notion of the distribution of political power in society, including how to define and give priority to an issue or problem. Much ink has been spilled here. The enormous attention paid to this issue by political scientists and political sociologists has yielded few firmly based, well accepted conclusions. The fullest literature on the subject is probably the vast study of community power structure by political scientists and sociologists, which we referred to as the debate between the power elite theory and the pluralist theory.

Therefore, significant limitations to the use of this rich body of scholarship in the context of agenda setting must be noted:

  1. The field has yielded few indisputable conclusions despite the collection of a solid body of study.

  2. Since the use of the policy cycle is absent in that literature, the investigators are looking for something else: the distribution of power in the community.

  3. Local politics, usually big cities, is the unit of analysis of much of the community Power structure literature. The literature on the policy making process is dominated by the national level. The difference in scope makes findings hard to transfer from one level of the federal system to the other with confidence.

Through the development of the Policy cycle, we will continue to examine whether some are better served by public policy than are others.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: July 10, 2001 | Last Update: 5/29/2009