Agenda Setting and Policy Reform

Agenda setting is a process in which government officials focus their attention on a set of policy issues during a given period of time. John Kingdon ( 1995 ) distinguishes between two different levels of governmental attention to policy issues: a governmental agenda consisting of all issues receiving government attention, and a decision agenda consisting of a limited number of issues that are under active governmental consideration for decisions and reform. Roger Cobb and Charles Elder ( 1983 ) note the important role of agenda setting in structuring subsequent policy decisions. In particular, the decision agenda for a time defines a limited set of potential reforms being considered for enactment by government leaders. Political battles over agenda setting therefore reflect larger social struggles over which policy reforms will be considered (or not considered) for enactment at a particular point in time ( Schattschneider 1960 ).

The limited scope of the decision agenda reflects the limited capacity of government leaders to attend to policy issues. In complex policy decisions, the processing of relevant information creates significant costs of time and effort. To reduce these costs, people faced with complex policy decisions will typically pursue decision strategies characterized by bounded rationality in which they pay selective attention to relevant information ( Simon 1947 ). The decision agenda in American national governance is a necessary instrument of selective attention for government leaders faced with the inherent limitations of bounded rationality, the demands of democratic deliberation, and the multitude of policy issues of national importance.

The decision agenda allows government leaders to selectively focus their attention on a few prominent policy issues at a time, leaving a much larger number of issues in the governmental agenda to the attention of government agents working in numerous specialized domains of policy activity referred to as policy subsystems ( Baumgartner and Jones 2009; Freeman 1955; Redford 1969 ). Although the reform efforts of government leaders are necessarily limited to a decision agenda, their collective attention can also shift rapidly from one decision agenda to another. For example, government leaders can rapidly shift their attention to a new decision agenda in response to focusing events (such as major disasters) that draw public and media attention to an issue ( Birkland 1997 ). Therefore, the decision agenda is limited in scope but dynamic in nature.

Given the typical abundance of policy disagreements in the American political system, agenda setting is frequently a field of political conflict in which reformers strive to place their proposals for reform on the agenda while their opponents strive to exclude those proposals from the agenda. Proponents and opponents of a reform proposal may both seek to expand the field of conflict over the proposal, with the proponents seeking to broaden support for the proposal while the opponents seek to broaden opposition to the proposal ( Schattschneider 1960 ). Reformers often find themselves at a disadvantage in agenda setting because of the crowded nature of the decision agenda, and also because of the costs and uncertainties associated with policy reform. Even when reformers succeed in placing a reform proposal on the decision agenda for a time, their opponents may still block the enactment of reform until the frequent cycling of public and political attention from one issue to the next removes the issue from the decision agenda ( Downs 1972 ).


In a major empirical study of agenda setting, Kingdon ( 1995 ) found that reformers faced a dynamic political landscape that offered only occasional and fleeting windows of opportunity for the reformers to place their proposals on the decision agenda. These windows of opportunity are rare because they result from the favorable convergence of numerous variables categorized by Kingdon into three sets or “streams” —problems, policies, and politics. For example, a favorable convergence of the three streams could consist of a problem stream, in which a condition facing society comes to be widely viewed as a problem that justifies policy action; a policy stream, in which reformers have developed a feasible proposal for policy reform that is widely viewed as an appropriate response to the problem; and a political stream, in which public, media, and political attention combine to promote enactment of the policy reform. In essence, reformers gain access to the decision agenda in sporadic and fleeting moments when a number of variables in a policy domain combine in favor of reform.

Reformers will typically face significant obstacles and opposition as they attempt to place proposals for reform on the decision agenda and achieve enactment of reform. If a reform is enacted, opponents of the reform may subsequently attempt to erode or revoke that reform ( Patashnik 2008 ). Overall, agenda access is the general requirement—and challenge—facing attempts to either enact or revoke a major policy reform ( Busenberg 2013 ). The punctuated equilibrium theory developed by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones ( 2009 ) examines the general implications of these agenda-setting dynamics for the policy process. According to this theory, the policy process is characterized by equilibrium periods of incremental policy change that are sporadically punctuated by critical periods of fundamental policy reform.

During equilibrium periods, opponents of reform successfully pursue a strategy of blocking proposed reforms and excluding reformers from agenda access. During punctuations, reformers gain access to the decision agenda and sometimes achieve the enactment of their proposed reforms; when enacted, these reforms often endure in the subsequent equilibrium period as the issue falls off the decision agenda. The dynamics of agenda setting are therefore reflected in a general pattern of punctuated equilibria in the policy process.

The issue of marine oil pollution offers an illustration of the relationship between agenda setting and policy reform. The disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska acted as a focusing event that elevated the issue of marine oil pollution to the national decision agenda. The resulting punctuation established durable federal reforms in the area of marine oil transportation, creating a long-lasting equilibrium characterized by major improvements in the safeguards against marine oil spills from tankers ( Birkland 1997; Busenberg 2013 ).

In sum, agenda setting plays a pivotal role in the dynamics of policy reform. Agenda access is the gateway to the active consideration of policy reform by government, including many reforms that are widely contested in American society. The process of agenda setting is therefore a central and contentious element of American governance.

SEE ALSO Media and Politics ; Policy Change ; Policy Process .


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

Birkland, Thomas A. After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1997.

Busenberg, George J. Oil and Wilderness in Alaska: Natural Resources, Environmental Protection, and National Policy Dynamics. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013.

Cobb, Roger W., and Charles D. Elder. Participation in American Politics: The Dynamics of Agenda-Building. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Downs, Anthony. “Up and Down with Ecology—The ‘IssueAttention Cycle.” ‘ The Public Interest 28 (1972): 38–50.

Freeman, J. Leiper. The Political Process: Executive BureauLegislative Committee Relations. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.

Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins College, 1995.

Patashnik, Eric M. Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Redford, Emmette S. Democracy in the Administrative State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organization. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

George J. Busenberg
Soka University of America