Agenda Typology

This page identifies some terms that reveal aspects of the agenda in practice. So far, our only reference to agenda objects has been the neutral term item, merely an individual unit on a list. We must add meaning and conditions to these agenda items.

Our ordinary language provides some insight into the dynamics of agenda-making. A useful bit of slang has been borrowed by the political science literature:

Priorities are thus being set, if not explicitly. Some items go forward while others go to the back of the line, perhaps to be later denied--to go out of existence within the public policy cycle. This is another example of agenda triage.

Another colorful idiom, the expression hidden agenda, is defined as:

An undisclosed plan, especially one with an ulterior motive.

The hidden agenda tips us off to the difference between what is publicly proposed as the stated agenda and what is the real agenda, even if not acknowledged publicly. This deception, especially in the public realm, has created much confusion, disappointment, and bad will. The distinction between what is stated and what is done is a fundamental issue in the Public Policy Web Site and will be discussed further a bit later.

Political scientists Cobb and Elder make the useful distinction between the systemic agenda and the institutional agenda. The former is a big issue known to all, perceived as in the air, which means that it gets front burner attention, at least for a while. The latter refers to the specific organizational forum within which an item is actually addressed.

Another way to phrase the distinction is to use the terms macro and micro. The former refers to the whole and the latter to a constituent part. Generally, the status of the national economy never leaves the macro agenda, particularly during times of high unemployment or inflation. Energy appears as a macro issue from time to time: as a critical shortage of a needed resource (the energy crisis of the 1970s, as an environmental problem (the Valdez, Alaska, oil spill), or as the hypothetical cause of war (the 1991 Gulf War between United Nations forces, mostly U.S.A., and Iraq in 2003). Most energy policy items, however, appear at the micro level. Offshore oil drilling regulations are addressed within more focused, but closed, institutional agendas. A classic treatment of the power of the oil industry to control the institutional, or micro, agenda is the The Politics of Oil by Robert Engler. (For an insider's story of energy politics, see Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. This book became part of the background for the feature film Syriana.)

The consideration of the energy agenda reveals a potential dysfunction of the agenda stage of the public policy cycle: agenda ephemera. This refers to the short life-span of agenda items. Energy policy appears on the agenda when supply has been curtailed and prices rise. When prices fall, energy falls off the agenda--precisely when the advantage and potential of energy policy is most timely. The agenda is transitory and lacks the capacity to anticipate. The 9/11 Commission Report effectively reached this conclusion about terrorist threats prior to 9/11.

I remind you of agenda triage, already introduced. The potential agenda items normally exceed those that can be realistically placed on the agenda. The analogy is to the medical usage of the term:

Triage is a system used by medical or emergency personnel to ration limited medical resources when the number of injured needing care exceeds the resources available to perform care so as to treat those patients in most need of treatment who are able to benefit first.

The agenda, through which we enter the public policy cycle, sets the stage for the close examination of the dual nature of public policy, introduced at the start of the course. Pay close attention!

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: July 10, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014