February 10, 2014

Three streams (no water pun intended)

The water crisis brought on by Freedom Industries' chemical leak provides a good real life illustration of what I think is a useful tool from political science. It's from John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies.

Theory is important, by the way. No one serious about affecting social change should ignore it. Or worse, substitute it with bad or just tired rhetoric. And the main reason to develop good theories in this context is to be able to apply them in real situations.

In Kingdon's model, policy changes happen when policy windows open. Policy windows open when three streams come together: the problem stream, the policy stream and the political stream. Specifically, those interested in enacting a policy need to be able to "couple" it to something that is widely seen to be a problem when political conditions are favorable. When the streams don't come together, it's hard to get anything major done.

The chemical leak made plenty of people see the need for clean water to be a problem. It's an open question as to whether it will be possible to muster the political will to enact strong enough policies to protect it.

There are lots of roles to be played in this arena. One is the wonkish role of developing policies and trying to pitch them to the political stream and link them to problems people want to act on. Another is to muster pressure to move the political stream in the right direction. Still another is raising public awareness that this or that is a problem that can really be addressed.

One thing is for sure in the water crisis: we've got the problem stream covered. We'll see in the next few weeks how or if the others come together. I hope they do. Its a safe bet though that the toughest stream will be the political one.

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