American Public Policy: Promise & Performance, 8th Edition, by B. Guy Peters

Chapter 4: Agenda Setting and Public Policy



In this chapter I have taken the policymaking process through its first stages: considering problems and then developing some mechanisms for solving them. Both activities--and indeed the entire activity of policymaking—are political exercises, but they also involve the application of techniques and tools for analysis. The tools for agenda setting are largely political, requiring the “selling” of agenda items to authorized decision makers, who may believe that they already have enough to do. Agenda setting also requires a detailed knowledge of the issue in question so that it can be related, first, to the known preferences of decision makers and, second, to existing policies and programs. Agenda setting is in some ways the art of doing something new so that it appears old.

The techniques that can be applied to policy formulation are more sophisticated technically, but they also require sensitive political hands that can use them effectively. To a great extent, the use of old solutions for new problems applies in formulation as well as in agenda setting. For both agenda setting and policy formulation, incremental solutions are favored in the United States. This incrementalism produces a great deal of stability in the policy process, but it makes rapid response to major changes in the economy and society difficult.

The solutions that emerge from these first stages of the policy process, then, are designed to be readily accepted by legislators and administrators who must authorize and legitimate the policies selected. A more comprehensive approach to design might well produce better solutions to problems, but it would face the barrier of political feasibility. The task of the analyst and advocate then becomes stretching the boundaries of feasibility to produce better public policies.

Review Questions:

  1. Define agenda setting and describe two types of policy agendas and their overall importance in the policymaking process.

  2. How does a problem become part of the “policy agenda,” and what factors are important in determining whether a problem becomes recognized as being on the policy agenda?

  3. Identify and define at least four types of actors who influence policy formulation and their likely roles in the policy-formulation process.