Explanatory Definition of Agenda

Let us try to think more systematically about how to manage an agenda. Think of two key variables and then set up the analysis as an economic problem in which a valuable resource must be allocated optimally under conditions of scarcity. The two key variables are demands and capacity.

  1. The demands on our time will vary from light to heavy.

  2. Our capacity to get things done will also vary with the amount of support we can muster.

The amount of time available to us is set: There are twenty-four hours in the day. The demands on our time often originate from situations we cannot control or influence. They may intrude from without or emanate from within ourselves. The stream of demands may slow down or may speed up. The rate may vary with the season, with the tempo of our job, or due to some emergency which interrupts our flow, displacing our planned activities with some pressing needs. The unexpected intrudes on our carefully constructed agenda.

When the demands placed on our agenda exceed our capacity to accomplish them or if surprises undermine our planning, we experience stress. We can do several things to cope. We might determine that some things simply will not get done and that we will live with the consequences --- agenda triage.

We might also shift other demands to a later time, deferring these items to the back burner, displacing them from the immediate attention of the front burner. Or we might ask others to help or even pay for services or time-saving products. When we search for ways to do more, we increase our capacity. Or we may simply choose to ignore what had been an agenda item.

Our capacity to get things done varies. Edison, Napoleon, and Washington achieved much. Each, however, had resources besides their own personal time. Edison had laboratories and highly skilled technicians. Washington made the most of a ragtag army. Napoleon invented better ways to fight land wars. Each took inventory of resources and applied them to their agenda. Busy parents turn to fast-food to manage their time demands. The extra cost of processed food substitutes for their time. Trade-offs are considered within the context of agenda. Devoting other resources, assuming they are available, can increase the capacity of a person or an organization to accomplish the items on an agenda.

Like individual persons, public agencies and legislative bodies can only do so much in its available time period, such as the calendar day, the term of office, or the legislative session. The items which make it to the agenda pass through a competitive selection process, and not all problems will be addressed. Inevitably, some will be neglected, which means that some constituency will be denied. Among the potential agenda items are holdovers from the last time period or a re-examination of policies already implemented which may be failing.

Political systems, too, face a stream of demands and operate within constraints, creating the same type of allocation problem that you and I have. Legislators, for example, are usually quite busy, especially if the next election looms soon upon them, a constant condition in the House of Representatives. Executive agencies are often backlogged. A notorious case is health care in the Veterans Administration. Presidents and governors hire staff whose sole responsibility is to manage the elected official's agenda. In political campaigns, the scheduler's role in properly managing the time of the candidate is among the most vital activities which can win or lose an election. Judgment, efficiency, good communications skills are sorely tested. People with such skills are in short supply. Consider the case of Mark Lotwis, a Ramapo College graduate now a Ph.D. in Political Science from American University, who enjoys a successful career in political management.

This means that not all problems brought to the doorstep of government will receive attention. The American political system provides a highly open process for individual citizens to make demands upon government, either problems of individual constituents:

There are more general and public policy-oriented problems:

Individual and group demands are not the only channel to the agenda. The media can shape the public agenda. This provides another relatively open process, carrying to the public much bad news. Citizens expect government -- particularly their elected officials -- to have ready made solutions to complex problems and not to screw up. The media exposes failed solutions and conspicuous failure. Witness the public spectacle surrounding the tragic blunders in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Would that this disaster had been prevented by getting preparations on the agenda well in advance.)

The sheer volume of demands placed on government is not only daunting, but forces policy makers to choose among a wide variety of possible agenda items, each with a complexity which the average citizen may not appreciate, each with a multitude of possible interacting causes, each with a plethora of possible remedies, each with a probably unknowable price tag attached, and each with complicated side-effects which are hard to discover, never mind estimate, and each with a vocal constituency with a vested interest. Thus, the demands on an agenda can overwhelm the best intentions and the most capable people and organizations. Alas, New Orleans after Katrina provides such a case.

My conclusion, fundamental to understanding the agenda in the public policy cycles is this: This invites lip service (substituting speeches for action), denial ("There is no responsible role for government in AIDS prevention. AIDS is a private issue."), or short-cut remedies based more on slogans then research and analysis.

The rate at which problems, issues, and demands arrive at the gate of the political system exceed the capacity of the political system to deal with them effectively.

Why are there so many possible agenda items for the political system to process? Let me identify several:

  1. There are many underlying conflicts within the American political economy: consumers versus producers, labor versus management, tax payer versus constituents which demand services. residents versus polluters, and so on. A traditional, rural, settled society will have far fewer demands placed on central institutions which we, in our frame of reference, call government.

  2. The U.S.A. is a large, complex, pluralist society with a federated and divided political system. The U.S.A. is the global superpower, totally enmeshed in foreign involvements with diverse geopolitical interests to protect. The Ramapo College Mission Statement explicitly recognizes these attributes with the pillars of multiculturalism and globalization.

  3. Further, consider the public policy cycle and its feedback intensity. Past public policies return to the current agenda with remarkable frequency. We call this feedback, a systemic resubmit function. Perhaps a problem has not gone away despite mounting a policy several years ago. The policy and its implementation must be reviewed anew. The oversight of past policies and programs makes it harder for new initiatives to be placed on the overcrowded agenda.

  4. The unexpected happens and often demands immediate attention. The classic case is 9/11. More likely, this scenario is repeated: The destruction of Superstorm Sandy at the shore in New Jersey requires the governor and every other elected official for those districts to drop what they are doing and hustle over to the beach for, at the very least, a town gathering or a photo session with the press. Letters pour in from distressed constituents, and each must be answered by staff. A new commission or a legislative subcommittee must swing into immediate action. And so it goes.

Thus, the typical flow of government and politics demands much time, energy, and money. As we will see in another chapter, the cumbersome budgetary process consumes much effort. The next election is just down the road, especially for Congressional representatives whose term is two years. Personnel matters, such as the appointment of a judge or a vacancy in a state agency coveted by a constituent, demand personal attention. There is much public relations to do: fund raising, openings, fund raising, wakes, fund raising, dinners, fund raising, speeches, and so forth. The individual elected official faces a demanding enough schedule without having to deal with the overflowing policy agenda. This is why legislative staffs have grown so much in recent years.

The demands exceed the capacity, so choices are forced. This raises a fundamental question by which the agenda reveals the values of the political system and even tells us about the distribution of a controversial but desirable commodity, political power. But more on this when we discuss how items get on the agenda and what biases might be observed.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork | wayne@profwork.com
Initialized: July 18, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014