Chapter Seven: Drawing practical lessons from punctuated equilibrium theory

Promoting informed decision-making is a recurring theme in improving the efficacy and responsiveness of government. Consistent with this theme is the assumption that decision-makers face an information deficit – that if decision-makers simply had access to the right knowledge that they would make better decisions. There exists an overarching normative consensus that more information in the policy process is generally good, but there are limits to how much decision-makers can process. Scholars of public policy, and particularly agenda setting, have tended to find that the central problem of policymaking is not a deficit of information, but instead, an oversupply of information. Very often, then, the central problem confronting decision-making is prioritising among this information. Information-processing, specifically attention, is seen as the driver of policy change in theories of agenda-setting such as multiple streams (see Cairney, this issue) and particularly so in punctuated equilibrium theory (PET). PET scholars have long understood that policy and institutional design are critical to information-processing (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993). This chapter represents a guide for scholars wishing to bridge the divide between PET theory and the practice of institutional design.

The engine of information processing in policy systems are subgovernments. Subgovernments are defined collections of policy actors in government, and around government, who develop and make policy within substantively specific issues. Usually, these subgovernments will contain an authoritative body (for example, a city council or congressional committee), an administrative unit for implementing policy (for example, the ministry of transportation or the police department), and supportive constellations of those interested in the policy issue (for example, Greenpeace or the Chamber of Commerce).

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