Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events

Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events

Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events

Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events

Synopsis

Even before the wreckage of a disaster is cleared, one question is foremost in the minds of the public: "What can be done to prevent this from happening again?" Today, news media and policymakers often invoke the "lessons of September 11" and the "lessons of Hurricane Katrina." Certainly, these unexpected events heightened awareness about problems that might have contributed to or worsened the disasters, particularly about gaps in preparation. Inquiries and investigations are made that claim that "lessons" were "learned" from a disaster, leading us to assume that we will be more ready the next time a similar threat looms, and that our government will put in place measures to protect us. In Lessons of Disaster, Thomas Birkland takes a critical look at this assumption. We know that disasters play a role in setting policy agendas'in getting policymakers to think about problems'but does our government always take the next step and enact new legislation or regulations? To determine when and how a catastrophic event serves as a catalyst for true policy change, the author examines four categories of disasters: aviation security, homeland security, earthquakes, and hurricanes. He explores lessons learned from each, focusing on three types of policy change: change in the larger social construction of the issues surrounding the disaster; instrumental change, in which laws and regulations are made; and political change, in which alliances are created and shifted. Birkland argues that the type of disaster affects the types of lessons learned from it, and that certain conditions are necessary to translate awareness into new policy, including media attention, salience for a large portion of the public, the existence of advocacy groups for the issue, and the preexistence of policy ideas that can be drawn upon. This timely study concludes with a discussion of the interplay of multiple disasters, focusing on the initial government response to Hurricane Katrina and the negative effect the September 11 catastrophe seems to have had on reaction to that tragedy.

Excerpt

This book was conceived in the year following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In the weeks that followed the attacks I was asked by friends, colleagues, students, and occasionally by journalists to explain the attacks and to put them into some sort of political or policy context. I sketched my initial thoughts in an opinion item written for a local newspaper, in which I argued that no matter how profound or frightening the attacks, our political system would accommodate a range of policy responses. The “system,” I argued, would do its job. Certainly, terrorism and aviation security would be at the top of policymakers' agendas for the near future, but eventually other issues would gain attention (Birkland 2001).

When Barry Rabe, then editor of the series in which this book is published, and Gail Grella approached me with the idea for writing a follow-up to After Disaster, it seemed a natural way to expand more systematically on the argument of the earlier book. I argued there that big events have important but variable influences on policy agendas; in this book, I address the question of whether big events have the same influence on policy change. My claim that there would probably be sweeping policy change was based primarily on a belief that something as big as the September 11 . . .

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