Explaining Local Policy Choices: A Multiple Streams Analysis of Municipal Emergency Management

By Henstra, Daniel | Canadian Public Administration, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Explaining Local Policy Choices: A Multiple Streams Analysis of Municipal Emergency Management


Henstra, Daniel, Canadian Public Administration


Although they operate within a limited framework bounded by provincial laws and regulations, municipal governments regularly make policy choices to determine who gets what, when and how. Responding to countless political, economic and social pressures, municipal authorities must necessarily choose among competing priorities and selectively allocate scarce resources to a limited set of problems. Why do municipal decision-makers address some problems but not others? Why, when faced with similar problems, do municipalities adopt different policy solutions?

This article focuses on the specific policy field of emergency management, which is a functional responsibility of all municipal governments in Canada. Although all communities face potential emergencies - ice storms, floods, train derailments, industrial accidents, and so on--some municipalities have undertaken comprehensive emergency planning while others have scarcely implemented even basic emergency measures. As explained below, due to a general apathy towards emergency management among citizens and elected officials, significant policy development in this area typically requires a purposive campaign by interested actors, who must persuade decision-makers to commit resources to policy proposals. These political dynamics make emergency management policy-making ideal for illustrating the utility of the Multiple Streams framework, an analytical lens that offers guidance in explaining public policy choices.

I begin by reviewing the Multiple Streams framework, identifying its underlying assumptions, structural features and explanatory logic. I then apply these theoretical elements to emergency management, adjusting the lens to focus on policy-making at the municipal level. As a means of illustrating the policy dynamics theorized by the Multiple Streams framework, the third section of this article provides a brief account of emergency management policy development in Sarnia, Ontario.

The Multiple Streams framework

Public policies are the output of the political system, the result of choices made by decision-makers about whether and how public authority and resources will be used to address problems (Pelissero 2003). But which problems are to be addressed? For a problem to reach the decision agenda, it must be salient, urgent and solvable. That is, it must be recognized as important and deserving of government attention, it must command priority relative to other problems competing for attention and resources, and there must be an available solution that is deemed feasible and acceptable. Explaining policy choices, therefore, requires an understanding of how problems are recognized and defined, how and why some problems get added to the decision agenda, how alternative policy solutions are formulated, and how a course of action is selected and why. These elements of policy-making--problem definition, agenda-setting, policy formulation and decision-making--are addressed by the Multiple Streams (MS) framework.

The foundation for the MS framework was laid in John Kingdon's analysis of federal government agenda-setting in the United States, originally published in 1984 and updated in 1995 and 2003. Other scholars have refined and extended its theoretical concepts (Zahariadis 2003, 2005) and have applied it to various policy domains. For example, the MS framework has been used to examine and explain privatization decisions in Britain and Germany (Zahariadis and Allen 1995), policy change following major catastrophes in the United States (Birkland 1997), the development of national health insurance in Canada and the United States (Blankenau 2001) and the formulation of a landmark agreement between the federal government and voluntary-sector agencies in Canada (Phillips 2003). Although Kingdon's work and most subsequent applications address policy-making at the national level, the MS framework also offers guidance for analysing policy choices of municipal governments.

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