Title: Multiple Streams

Submitted by: Lora Cohen-Vogel & Michael McLendon
Alternate Names: Garbage Can Decision-making


"Kingdon’s so-called Multiple Streams approach remains one of the most cited theories of policy formation, if also one of its least systematically applied. At the heart of the perspective lies an interest in explaining agenda change—how and why some issues move onto and up the decision agenda of government, while others do not. Through case studies of federal policy making in the areas of transportation and health and an impressive panel design consisting of 247 interviews with policy makers over a 4-year period, Kingdon developed an explanation of policy change that accommodated some elements of rationalism and incrementalism, while rejecting as inadequate the traditional problem-solving and incremental models of policy formation.
The federal government, according to MS thinking, can be viewed as an arena through which three “streams” of separate, simultaneous activity surge. The problem stream consists of those conditions which policy makers have chosen to interpret as problems. The policy stream consists of the various “solutions” developed by specialists in the countless policy communities that surround and engulf the nation’s capitol. The politics stream consists of developments involving macro political conditions: the public mood, interest group politics, and turnover in the administrative and legislative branches. These streams—of problems, policies, and politics—flow, Kingdon asserts, through the federal governmental system largely independent of one another and each according to its own set of interior dynamics. As a result, change within one stream may occur independently of change in other streams, a principal assumption of the MS model.
In the MS formulation, an issue gains traction on the policy agenda only when the three separate streams of activity couple with a choice opportunity. This coupling of streams constitutes the single-most important feature of the model. Stream-convergence may occur when a “window of opportunity” opens, allowing policy entrepreneurs brief moments in time to push attention towards their pet problems or to push their pet solutions. According to Kingdon (1995), entrepreneurs “lie in wait in and around government with their solutions [already] in hand, waiting for problems to float by to which they can attach their solutions, waiting for a development in the political stream they can use to their advantage” (p. 165). Although the forces that guide activity within the streams possess a discernable pattern, one finds in the process of stream convergence a certain arbitrary quality. Kingdon paraphrases Cohen, March, and Olsen (1972) in portraying counter-intuitively the agenda setting process as one whereby choices look for issues, problems look for decision situations in which they can be aired, solutions look for problems to which they might be the answer, and politicians look for pet problems or policies by which they might advance their careers."

(Excerpt from Cohen-Vogel, L. & McLendon, M. (2009). New approaches to understanding federal involvement in education. In D. Plank, G. Sykes, and B. Schneider (Eds.), Handbook of Education Policy Research. A Handbook for the American Educational Research Association. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.)

References:

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Kingdon, J. W. (1995). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2nd edition) New York: Harper Collins

Kingdon, J. W. (1994). Agendas, ideas, and policy change. In L. Dodd & C. Jillson (Eds.), New Perspectives on American Politics (pp. 215-299). Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press

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Kingdon, J. W. (1984). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little, Brown.

References applying the framework:

Cohen-Vogel, L. & McLendon, M. (2009). New approaches to understanding federal involvement in education. In D. Plank, G. Sykes, and B. Schneider (Eds.), Handbook of Education Policy Research. A Handbook for the American Educational Research Association. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

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DeBray-Pelot, E. (2007). School choice and educational privatization initiatives in the 106th and 107th Congresses: An analysis of policy formation and political ideologies. Teachers College Record, music for meditation 109,927–972.

McDermott, K. (2005). In MINT condition? The politics of alternative certification and pay incentives for teachers in Massachusetts. Educational Policy, 19 (1), 44 - 62