California State University Long Beach

Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration

Summer 2002, Third Session




            The policy agenda is composed of the demands that policy-makers agree to consider. It is not the sum of all political demands, and is ranked according to the political priorities of the policy decision-makers. A number of individuals or groups can try to get their issues onto the policy agenda, including leaders, interest groups, crisis or disaster, mass organizations or protests, media attention, etc. “Non-decisions” are the decisions to avoid considering certain issues.


            Agenda setting is not a rational process, but a struggle over the definition of the problem. All interests are not equally represented in this struggle, and some problems are more likely to reach the agenda than others.


            The rational approach assumes that no important problems are unperceived and that all problems are accurately defined by all participants who agree on an objective definition. May decision-makers assume that if a problem has not been brought to their attention, then it does not exist. The implications of this assumption are like the ostrich with its head in the sand.


            In actuality, there is no agreement on what the problem is or even whether it is a public issue. There is no agreement on the values or tradeoffs that should be made in areas of conflict (e.g., environmental protection versus jobs). Conflict arises because different groups would be affected in different ways by any potential definition of the problem or any potential solution. Interest groups place issues where they will have the most control over the decision-makers. Not all problems create “publics” or equally powerful groups. Corporations and institutions are more likely to survive and get their issues on the agenda over the long term. Also, within a capitalist system, a high degree of business success must be supported by public policy.


            A problem must be accepted on the agenda for the policy-making system to take action. Once on the agenda, it is hard to displace an issue (e.g., poverty, education, health). Issues get onto the agenda through:

-influential publications, mass mobilizations, dramatic events (e.g., Sputnik)

-perception that something is wrong and that government can help;

-cycles of enthusiasm for issues, followed by realization of what it will cost, the seriousness of the problem and the low odds of solving it, followed by decline in popularity (environment, women’s rights, war on drugs, etc.)

-formal points of entry, as well as informal points, such as official and unofficial participants, linkages, ideologies, external events, institutional and constitutional challenges

-problems must be conceptualized, named and defined, for example, is the “drug problem” one of enforcement, education, supply and demand, public health?


            Agendas are to some degree an abstraction, represented by legislative calendars, speeches by politicians, government regulations, etc. There are two conceptual agendas:


-systemic agenda, some important parties agree that something should be a public concern; all issues that are commonly perceived to merit public attention, involving matters within the legitimate jurisdiction of existing governmental authority; they have widespread awareness or attention; the concern is shared by a large segment that some action is required; there is shared perception that the matter requires government attention and falls within the authority of some governmental unit; should government deal with it at all?


-institutional agenda, what those in power are prepared to deal with (which excludes pseudo-items on the systemic agenda); most conflict occurs over which agenda the item belongs on (turf wars), either fighting to retain popular items or fighting to get rid of unpopular items; what should government do? Items specifically, actively, and seriously up for consideration by authoritative decision-makers.




            Pluralist theory--policy-making is divided into many arenas, those without power in one arena may find it in another arena; there is a marketplace for competing policies, groups, and interests; any group may win in some arena; actors accept the rules of the game (elections determine who gets to decide on public policy).


            Elitists--a power elite dominates the process to serve their own interests; the same interests have power in all arenas and always win; few people actually organize into interests groups with time, money and skills; the elite must keep key issues off the agenda to retain control and power; elite suppression of issues threatens democracy.


            Institutional--legislative committees and bureaucratic institutions vie for control of the agenda; individuals benefit little from these agenda decisions; social interests have little impact on what is actually considered; this leads to somewhat more conservative policy alternatives than under the group scenario but less conservative than under the elite scenario.




1) Who does it affect, and how much? How extreme are the effects? How dispersed or concentrated? What is the number of people affected? How visible are the effects? Can individual persons be distinguished from one another in terms of effects?


2) How alike is it to or different from other problems? If it can be made to seem like an existing public concern, it is more likely to get onto the agenda than if it is perceived as a brand new issue.


3) Spillover effects? Existing government programs and policies produce new problems to be solved; for example, highways created suburbs, which led to central city declines.


4) Symbolic value? Freedom, justice, defense, children, elderly, private enterprise, etc.


5) Lack of private sector solutions? Government is generally laissez faire, except for areas such as public (social) goods such as national defense and flood control, where it is difficult to break a good or service down into individual consumption units and charge for them; and negative externalities, when the economic gain of one party causes economic loss to another party, such as air pollution; and risk, for example, student loans guarantees, corporate bailouts, flood insurance, etc.


6) Is there technology available to solve the problem? The government may support research on solutions for problems, but there is a reluctance to consider problems without proven solutions.


            Political leaders are the major initiators of policy issues, and the major participants in the national or civic debates on policy. Politicians may support one another in exchange for getting a favored item onto the policy agenda.


            Political and policy elites, lobbyists, think tanks, those with access to power.


            Groups may have access because a decision-maker is a member of that group or identified with it. Groups have resources, including mobilization of voters. Some groups are so powerful that their demands cannot be ignored (big business). Some groups are held in greater esteem and/or thought to have better technical knowledge (e.g., doctors). Some groups may have better access through one branch or level of government than others (e.g., civil rights groups and courts).


            Political Parties can generate issues, especially in an election year.


            The Media can elevate issues to gain public attention and get onto the systemic and then the institutional agenda (Ralph Nader). The media can publicize issues that are unknown, or it can pick up on themes important to decision-makers and push those themes. It can stimulate controversy among the constituency and get them to contact their representatives. It can structure public debate in that way that issues are reported, the terms used to frame the debate, and the illustrative stories presented. The media can also choose not to report on certain issues which the editors deem unworthy.


            Crisis, natural disasters, unforseen events, international events.


            Access is a function of the perceived legitimacy of the group or individual; and is also influenced by the prevailing socio-political and cultural climate.




            Effective responses require information, capacity, and political will.


            Vague demands or trivial issues are ignored; issues may be deemed vague or trivial if their demands would threaten or conflict with the interests of the power elite.


            Issues not requiring government action; many issues have been deemed to belong to the private sector and will not be considered by government.


            Politics As Usual: Policy action is limited by previous government decisions, poor political skills or lack of resources of the underlying group, the entrenched interests, the issue has not been in the public eye long enough to garner support, or everyone considers the issue to be settled;


            Established bureaucracies are usually defenders of the status quo and established privilege; they are not neutral; they can control access by outsiders; they may resist challenges by resisting appointments from outside; generally accommodate the wishes of the elites; care little for adequate public representation.


            Faded issues: the energy crisis of the 1970s was a result of the oil embargo, and largely faded away when the embargo was lifted. Concerns about unemployment may be displaced by concerns about inflation; environmental protection in Alaska may be displaced by energy independence (oil drilling).


            Issues may die in committees or subcommittees; they may never be scheduled or be held back until it is too late; they may be postponed in favor of more routine issues that are easier to deal with; they may be tabled until more information is available; or referred to an investigatory panel.


Some issues seem to be ignored because:

-issues are too hot to be handled

-there is a decision not to intervene

-there is only a symbolic but meaningless response

-there are disappointing or unexpectedly negative results

-there is a delayed response

-there is a response at an inappropriate level

-the response is neither predictable, nor immediate, the commitment is not all-out, there is a decision but not action, and the problem is not resolved


            There are too many issues to consider all at any one time

            Delay may wear down the resources of opponents and/or supporters

            Conflicting values make an immediate response infeasible

            Partisan mutual adjustment politics (group theory) takes a long time

            Some issues are like forest fires and must be dealt with at once, displacing other issues

Support for some issues comes only from politically powerless groups and can be successfully ignored for some time

Politicians may alter issues to suit their own needs

Publics may be inarticulate about what they actually want or need

Some issues are better left alone because there is really nothing government can do