Stages of the policy making process

Stages of the Policymaking Process

There are five general stages of the public policy process: agenda setting, policy formulation, policy adoption, policy implementation, and policy evaluation. While this process isn’t strictly followed in every situation with every policy, when looking broadly at the political and policy process, we can usually see each of these stages when examining individual public policies. As such, political scientists take this as a helpful framework for evaluating, analyzing, and understanding the formation of public policy.

Agenda Setting

Agenda setting, as stage one in the process, is often the hardest; how do you get a policy problem on the agenda of the most powerful people in the world? One of the classic treatises on agenda setting in public policy is Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies by Kingdon.1 Kingdon argues that three “streams” must combine together in order for a policy problem to make it onto the political agenda: the problem, the existence of a solution, and the political will to deal with it. When these three things coincide, a policy window opens when it is the easiest for political institutions to consider an issue. Oftentimes, it takes willing and able policy entrepreneurs to prepare the groundwork, to work to make sure the three streams coincide.

While it might appear strange at first to think that problems and solutions can be so easily separated by Kingdon, this distinction is actually very important. Some members of Congress may seek changes to particular policy areas absent a crisis or problem simply because of an ideological belief about what the policy should be doing. For example, some Republicans have sought for years to reduce the amount of money being spent on entitlement programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (commonly known as welfare), Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. However, if there is no major problem with any of these areas and the policies are operating relatively well, why would anyone see a need to change them, other than ideologically based reasons, of course? On the other hand, it is easy to see where policy problems may arise suddenly that have no existing solutions; if there is no agreed-upon way of solving a crisis, there may be stopgap policies but no longer term way of fixing the problem in the first place. Therefore, Kingdon’s policy streams theory highlights how circumstances must come together just right in order for policy changes to be successfully made.

Others have examined the role that political actors play in agenda setting. Perhaps one of the most powerful agenda setters is the president. Presidents, by focusing time and energy on a topic, can influence the media and Congress to pick up on problems as well.2 Given all of the things that a president may choose to focus on in a given term, let alone week or month, a president’s choice in focusing the nation’s attention on certain issues sends a strong signal that an issue is important. When making these decisions, presidents are likely to take into consideration the makeup of Congress and the status of the federal budget when deciding what issues to take up.3 Presidents then can use the resources of their office, such as the bully pulpit and even the State of the Union address, to highlight policy issues they wish to focus on. Especially in the run-up to election periods, presidents must be seen to be responding to public concerns and therefore may use this agenda setting power to help their own reelection efforts.4

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