After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

1
Focusing Events, Agenda Setting,
and the Policy Process

This book is about how sudden, unpredictable events called focusing events influence the public policy-making process. I develop a theory of focusing events by employing a rich variety of literature on the policy process, including agenda setting, group competition, the political aspects of the news media, and the use of symbols in political debate. In so doing, I analyze data spanning one to three decades of policy-making activity dealing with natural disasters, oil spills, and nuclear power plant accidents.

While focusing events are often an important part of policy making, I make no claim that focusing events are always important or are the sole trigger of attention to a problem. Other scholars have studied the role of social and economic change in politics and policy. Political crisis, rather than being the result of a single event or a handful of events, may often result from a period of inexorable social change and conflict. The expansion of government in the New Deal era, for example, was the result of long-term social change and growing demands for government to mitigate downturns in the business cycle. Health insurance reform has waxed and waned fairly regularly on the agenda, at least since the Truman administration. These issues, and others like them, come and go as their underlying political, economic, and demographic elements change. Problems and proposed solutions move higher and lower on the agenda as a result of conflicting interpretations of facts and trends and with changes in the ideological tastes of the electorate. More "liberal" electoral trends lead to periods of more extensive governmental activity, while more "conservative" periods lead, per to a retrenchment of government and, perhaps, to a reduction in the number of tasks government undertakes. These trends may take years to be recognized and even longer to have an influence on policy making, and in these cases it is difficult to identify one or a few points in time as critical in the life cycles of these issues.

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