Agenda-setting is a crucial stage in the policy process for any political system. 1 By definition, no policy can be made if the issue to which it is addressed cannot first be placed onto the active agenda of a governmental institution. Having a new issue considered is not in general an easy task and almost always requires substantial political mobilisation, and often a good bit of luck as well. Therefore, agenda-setting is an initial crucial 'veto point' (Immergut 1992) in the policy process at which political and administrative leaders can exercise their power, either to have a policy intervention considered, or to prevent anything from happening that would diminish the well-being of their constituent group.
As we will point out below in greater detail we should, in fact, conceptualise agenda-setting as having several components, rather than as being the rather simple decision as to whether to consider the issue or not. In particular, the exact social and political construction of the issue is as important to the final determination of how the issue will be processed and decided as is the initial decision to consider it at all. A single issue can be conceptualised in different ways that will make it more or less attractive to policy-makers. Further, its construction will determine which set of decision-making institutions will process the issue, and therefore to some extent determine its fate.
Not all issues are equal in the agenda-setting process. Many seem to reappear almost automatically on government agendas, as they arise due to the proximity of the annual budget or they are components of programmes that must be reauthorised on a frequent basis (Walker 1977). For some programmes, however, this frequent attention by government decision-makers is not entirely welcome. Some programmes return to the agenda because they are unpopular with significant actors in the political system and they frequently must defend themselves against attempts to shut them down. Thus, the most desirable trajectory for a programme may be to go through the policy process once and then be able to hide from much subsequent attention unless it is intended to enhance the programme.
Crises can move some issues onto the agenda and through the entire policy process within days. The advocates of other policy changes, however, must strive for years in order to have their favourite concern be considered for the first time. Likewise, certain types of issues tend to be advantaged by political systems and others are disadvantaged, if not excluded outright. Issues that affect certain social groups, e.g., children, adversely can be placed on an active agenda readily, while those affecting traditional 'pariah groups', e.g., AIDS patients or drug-abusers, will take much longer (Rochefort and Cobb 1994). Therefore, one way to gain an analytic handle on the 'style' (Richardson 1982; Mazey and Richardson 1995) and character of a political system is to examine how issues are first identified, how they are defined, and how they are then processed for further consideration through that system.