Advocacy Coalition Framework

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) is a leading theory of the policy process that was developed by Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith in the 1980s ( 1988, 1993 ). Their goal was to help explain public policy during contentious processes that usually involve substantially conflicting goals and scientific and technical disputes. Participants in these processes include officials from various levels of government and people not affiliated with government, such as representatives of interest groups, academics, and members of the news media. The ACF is one of the most established and applied approaches for understanding contentious politics in policy process studies. The ACF complements other approaches in the policy process literature such as the study of rules in shaping collective behavior, for which scholars tend to use Elinor Ostrom's ( 1990 ) institutional analysis and development framework, or the study of agenda setting, for which scholars use John Kingdon's ( 2011 ) three streams metaphor or Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones's ( 2009 ) punctuated equilibrium.


Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith based the ACF on several assumptions:

  1. The policy subsystem is the primary unit of analysis for understanding the policy process. Policy subsystems are defined by a substantive topic, a territorial scope, and by people, called policy actors, who actively try to influence public policy and politics. These subsystems may be nested either vertically through levels of government (i.e., as might be found in federalism) or overlap horizontally across different topical issues. For example, some policy actors may be actively engaged in an energy policy subsystem in the state of Colorado that overlaps with an agriculture-based policy subsystem also in Colorado while also being nested within a broader energy policy subsystem at the national level.
  2. Given the high number of policy actors potentially involved in a policy subsystem, a useful strategy is to simplify those policy actors into one or more advocacy coalitions. This assumption reflects the logic that, when it comes to contentious issues, people tend to coalesce into different sides of a debate.
  3. Policy actors are goal oriented, are motivated by beliefs, and tend to remember losses more than gains. Policy actors use their belief systems to filter and interpret their experiences and other information. Because policy actors are also more likely to remember losses than gains, they engage in the “devil shift,” the exaggeration of the power and maliciousness of their opponents. As a result, opponents tend to demonize each other over time after one or more political defeats.
  4. Policies and programs reflect the beliefs of the policy actors from one or more advocacy coalitions. Policies are in effect translations of coalition members' beliefs. As such they represent the normative position on an issue, empirical beliefs about an issue such as the degree of its seriousness, and the means to resolve the issue.
  5. Scientific and technical information is important for understanding policy processes. As most subsystems involve complex issues that vary in seriousness, causes, and potential impacts, scientific and technical information shapes policy actors' understanding of the issues, interactions with each other, and strategies for advocacy.
  6. To understand policy processes, a long-term perspective of a decade or more is recommended. Analysts are advised to take a long-term perspective on how a policy or issue developed over time to better understand the factors contributing to the formation and maintenance of coalitions, the propensity for learning, and instances of major and minor policy change.


The ACF directs analysts to understand contentious policy processes in the context of a policy subsystem that is embedded in a broader context defined by two major categories. In the first category are the relatively stable parameters of the political system: basic geographic conditions, fundamental sociocultural characteristics, and basic institutional structures such as the US Constitution. In the second category are external factors: changes in government leadership, socioeconomic conditions, changes in various subsystems, public opinion, and major events such as crises. Accounting for the broader context, applications of the ACF tend to focus on three theoretical emphases: advocacy coalitions, learning, or policy change. These areas of research can be examined independently or in conjunction with each other.

Learning. Learning refers to changes in beliefs or behavior that result from experience or acquiring information. Learning is influenced by the rules governing the interactions between coalition members, level of conflict between coalitions, tractability of the problem, attributes of information, and attributes of policy actors, including belief systems, resources, and network relations. Although learning often occurs within a coalition, a major focus of the ACF is what factors are conducive to learning across opposing coalitions. Increasing the likelihood of crosscoalition learning is the presence of a policy broker who attempts to mitigate conflict and help opponents make policy agreements.

Policy Change. The ACF differentiates between major and minor policy change. Major changes are those that affect the goals constituting the policy subsystem, whereas minor changes affect the instrumental means in achieving those goals. There are four pathways to policy change. The first two pathways include events either external or internal to the policy subsystem. The third pathway is policy learning, which alters the beliefs of the dominant coalition or shared understandings between coalitions. The fourth pathway for policy change is negotiated agreements between coalitions. The central hypothesis is that the necessary but not sufficient conditions for policy change are significant events, either external or internal to the policy subsystem; learning; negotiations; or some combination of these. The sufficient condition in many situations is a coalition willing to capitalize on the opportunity for policy change that the different pathways provide.


The original applications of the ACF focused mainly on environmental issues in the United States, such as a study of offshore oil and gas policy ( Jenkins-Smith et al. 1993 ). Over time, applications have diversified in terms of both issue and location, including education policy in Mozambique ( Beverwijk et al. 2008 ), labor policy in Australia ( Nagel 2006 ), conservation policy in South Korea ( Kim 2003 ), and many applications in Europe, including topics of crisis ( Nohrstedt 2013 ), drug policy ( Kübler 2001 ), and climate change ( Ingold 2011 ).

The ACF continues to develop as a framework for understanding and explaining contentious policy processes across the globe and in a myriad of contexts. This knowledge serves academia in both research and teaching as well as society in providing better understanding of politics, advocacy, and governance.

SEE ALSO Policy Analysis ; Policy Change ; Policy Learning ; Policy Process ; Policy Subsystems .


Baumgartner, Frank R., and Bryan D. Jones. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Beverwijk, Jasmin, Leo Goedegebuure, and Jeroen Huisman. “Policy Change in Nascent Subsystems: Mozambican Higher Education Policy 1993–2003.” Policy Sciences 41, no. 4 (2008): 357–77.

Ingold, Karin. “Network Structures within Policy Processes: Coalitions, Power, and Brokerage in Swiss Climate Policy.” Policy Studies Journal 39, no. 3 (2011): 435–59.

Kim, Seoyong. “Irresolvable Cultural Conflicts and Conservation/Development Arguments: Analysis of Korea's Saemangeum Project.” Policy Sciences 36, no. 2 (2003): 125–49.

Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Updated 2nd ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.

Kübler, Daniel. “Understanding Policy Change with the Advocacy Coalition Framework: An Application to Swiss Drug Policy.” Journal of European Public Policy 8, no. 4 (2001): 623–41.

Nagel, Peter. “Policy Games and Venue-Shopping: Working the Stakeholder Interface to Broker Policy Change in Rehabilitation Services.” Australian Journal of Policy Analysis 65, no. 4 (2006): 3–16.

Nohrstedt, Daniel. “Advocacy Coalitions in Crisis Resolution: Understanding Policy Dispute in the European Volcanic Ash Cloud Crisis.” Public Administration 91, no. 4 (2013): 964–79.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sabatier, Paul A., and Hank C. Jenkins-Smith. “Symposium Editors’ Introduction.” Policy Sciences 21, nos. 2-3 (1988): 123-27.

Sabatier, Paul A., and Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, eds. Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Weible, Christopher M., and Daniel Nohrstedt. “The Advocacy Coalition Framework: Coalitions, Learning, and Policy Change.” In Routledge Handbook of Public Policy, edited by Eduardo Araral, Scott Fritzen, Michael Howlett et al. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Jonathan J. Pierce
Seattle University

Christopher M. Weible
University of Colorado Denver