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:
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 .
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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
Christopher M. Weible
University of Colorado Denver