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Theories of the Policy Process Essay


This paper examines three theories of the policy process: punctuated equilibrium theory, social construction of target populations, and the narrative policy framework. To be analyzed properly, modern-day policy demands complicated frameworks, and, while each theory has its strengths and weaknesses, they all allow a profound understanding of how the public policy is made and what it depends on.

Punctuated Equilibrium Theory

In this theory, the authors examine policymaking in the USA through certain stabilities and crises that may occur. They are convinced that stasis is more common for the American policymaking than unexpected drastic changes (Baumgartner, Jones, & Mortensen, 2014, p. 60). According to the theory, the policy process depends both on political institutions and decision making; every policy process needs to define the issue it handles, then prepare and set certain agenda of it (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 61).

Issues are perceived differently in public, so, after analysis of the opinions is done, public policy can be either altered or questioned; in this case, questioning of the policy can result in an unexpected possibility of bringing a major change in society (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 62). But what does the equilibrium theory imply? The authors notice that:

  1. policymaking always goes through periods of stasis and then makes leaps or vice versa;
  2. political institutions play their role in the establishing of this equilibrium;
  3. public policy images can take the issues out of control of policy specialists (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 63).

In my opinion, such a process still can be observed in the modern-day policymaking; it does not matter if the decision had a nationwide or state impact; there are times when none of the issues is discussed, and after a few months a new trending issue explodes in the public discourse. How can one explain this? Baumgartner et al. argue that while political institutions were designed to resist any change, so they are able to keep the process stable, this process is nevertheless interrupted by significant changes from time to time (2014, p. 64). This has helped the Congress become an interactive system, claim the authors (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 63).

Institutions are also capable of handling issues either parallel or serial, i.e. some of them approach several issues at the same time, and others examine them one after the other; when one issue becomes more relevant, and its political agenda grows, it is possible that a major change will happen (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 64). The authors expand their theory and approach the federal budget; they hypothesize budgets may change leptokurtically, because of the occasional ‘change bursts’ (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 69).

They compare their assumption to statistical data and conclude: “The distribution of annual changes in budget authority is consistent with the “earthquake” budget model” (Baumgartner et al., 2014, p. 69). Thus, punctuated equilibrium theory is not only applicable to the policymaking but also to governmental budgets (not only in the USA). But it is even broader; Baumgartner et al. apply this theory to information processing. Policymaking consists of periods of under- an overreaction; it is important to know how exactly the policymaking system approaches a problem because the problem recognition depends on it (2014, p. 90).

It does not mean, however, that all interactions can be defined with such a framework; although according to the equilibrium theory, certain changes indeed happen, the policymaking system is too complicated to explain its fluctuations only with the mentioned theory. It does not explain the phenomenon when several issues stay in focus of the public for many months, maybe years, or when several issues, one after the other, appear in the public discourse, or when two or three crises follow one another. Nevertheless, I could agree with this theory as it is a good example of what we sometimes can observe in American policymaking and the discourse it provokes.

Democratic Policy Design: Social Construction of Target Populations

This article examines a very relevant and widely discussed issue of the policymaking system: inequality in social groups, the reasons behind it, the causes and consequences of it. The authors claim that the image of target groups plays a significant role in the public policy, and citizens can be manipulated with the help of stereotypes about these groups (Schneider, Ingram, & deLeon, 2014, p. 106). Different target groups, depending on their power and social construction, receive different benefits and carry different burdens (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 109).

The authors notice that small business owners, soldiers, job creators, etc. are most likely to take advantage of the policy decisions; they are also respected in the society (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 109). The groups who also have significant political resources but are labeled as untrustworthy include insurance companies, Wall Street Brokers, radical activists, etc. (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 111). Their benefits are hard to identify, but they still receive them; that happens because the legislators do not want to admit openly that they are ‘doing good’ for ‘bad people’, explain the authors (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 111).

The next group, called ‘dependents’ by the authors, is considered to be deserving, although the ‘dependents’ usually lack political power (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 112). These are mothers, children, students, mentally challenged people, etc. The last group that is usually viewed as ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘dangerous’ consists of terrorists, criminals, drug dealers, illegal immigrants, etc.; the name of the group is ‘deviants’ (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 112). They do not have political power, and their image in the broad public is negative.

In their second proposition named ‘Feedback or Feed Forward,’ the authors discuss how these social constructions influence governmental policy and citizens. The women at the end of the XIX century did not have the right to vote, so this target group was not appealed to by politicians until the beginning of the XX century. A modern example is the vote prohibition (in some states) for those who were once convicted; such policies send a message to citizens and create a particular image of the target groups (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 117). These agendas have an impact on opinions about which groups are more ‘worthy’ and ‘deserve more’ and which ones should be restricted from getting any benefits.

The origins of these constructs are hidden in human biology. Humans “do not perceive and then evaluate, but instead operate under an “affect” heuristic” (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 122). Our species tends to absorb an opinion at first and rationally evaluate it later. This can explain the powerfulness of the agendas that call for certain groups and ignore the others; the members of the first group might not critically overview the agenda because it promises benefits to them. Such a system of human thinking, conclude the authors, “drives people’s notions of how policy should treat those groups” (Schneider et al., 2014, p. 124).

Thus, existing social constructs, as they often bring harmful stereotypes, should be changed or transformed (or even get rid of) to make policy more transparent and take it back to a state of equilibrium where none of the groups is more privileged than the other. However, this theory does not examine the members who are able to shift from one group to another, e.g., a Wall Street Broker who went bankrupt, privileged students from the Ivy League universities, etc. How are they represented in the public policy and media, how are they used in political agendas? The line between the groups is blurry, and they do not cover all members of society.

The Narrative Policy Framework

The last theory to review is the narrative policy framework; I find it interesting and corresponding to the theories examined above. The narrative policy framework (the NPF) argues that the policy relies more on the narratives than on the details of the policy, because humans, as sociologists found out, are a species that depends on and interested in the narratives (McBeth, Jones, & Shanahan, 2014, p. 226). The policy narratives, according to the authors, can serve as policy marketing; the elements of narratives can be a part of policy beliefs; certain narrative strategies can compete in policy narratives (McBeth et al., 2014, p. 227).

McBeth et al. define four core-specific elements of a policy narrative: setting (e.g. geography, economic conditions), characters (heroes, victims, villains), plot (the arc of action), and moral (i.e. policy solution) (2014, p. 228). The NPF is divided into three levels of analysis: micro, meso, and macro; micro-level analyzes individuals, meso is linked to coalitions, and macro examines institutions and culture. To understand why the narratives are present in all of the levels, the authors suggest combining neurobiological approach, behavioral economics, and psychology; moreover, to avoid misunderstandings, the authors notice that “the NPF does not contend that it measures an objective reality” (McBeth et al., 2014, p. 249).

The main aim of the NPF is thus to analyze existing policy narratives and conclude what effects they have on individuals (McBeth et al., 2014, p. 249). Depending on the subject of the policy and interest groups, any issue in the public policy might be presented controversially, as it has happened with the refugee crisis in Europe or illegal immigrants in the United States. The NPF studies the policy narratives that lead the public to a certain opinion, and this results in policy solutions that could have been different (McBeth et al., 2014, p. 251).

In my opinion, the main weakness of the theory is that it focuses on the elements of reality that are too complicated to be reviewed. To be understood, some issues demand more than one framework. However, the three theories examined above could provide a better analysis of the current issues if they were transformed into one complicated framework.


While the punctuated equilibrium theory argues that the decision making in the public policy undergoes ‘stability’ and ‘change’ periods and thus allows complicated interactions between policymakers and citizens, the theory of social construction of target populations stresses out that the policy agenda depends on the social groups; the target populations’ benefits and punishments depend on the image they have in the public policy. The narrative policy framework empirically examines the policy agenda and analyzes the policy narratives used in it; the NPF argues that narratives play a significant role in the policy process.


Baumgartner, F. R., Jones, B. D., & Mortensen, P. B. (2014). Punctuated equilibrium theory: explaining stability and change in public policymaking. In P. Sabatier & C. Weible (Eds.), Theories of the policy process (pp. 59-103). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

McBeth, M. K., Jones, M. D., & Shanahan, E. A. (2014). The narrative policy framework. In P. Sabatier & C. Weible (Eds.), Theories of the policy process (pp. 225-267). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Schneider, A., Ingram, H., & deLeon, P. (2014). Democratic policy design: Social construction of target populations. In P. Sabatier & C. Weible (Eds.), Theories of the policy process (pp. 105-151). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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