The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Policy Agendas Project Goes Global

Wed, July 13, 2011


The Policy Agendas Project, which measures public policy changes in the United States, has spawned a cross-national research program captured under the umbrella of the Comparative Policy Agendas Project. In August, a special issue of “Comparative Political Studies” will be published presenting some of the project’s findings.

Bryan Jones, professor of government and J.J. “Jake” Pickle Regents Chair in Congressional Studies, created the Policy Agendas Project with Frank Baumgartner and the two direct the project with John Wilkerson. The Project’s academic home is now The University of Texas at Austin Department of Government. Jones, Baumgartner and Wilkerson penned the issue’s introduction in which they lay out the broadest topics driving comparative studies of policy dynamics. Their insights follow from measuring government activities in 11 countries and many different policymaking venues over several decades. The various databases include more than 1.5 million comparable events.

A distinguishing feature of the comparative project is a focus on information and attention to policies. One of the robust findings from analyzing the databases is that the stimulus for policy change oftentimes lies outside the electoral process. Rather than policy change emanating from the election of competing political parties with differing platforms, policy change begins with the emergence of new information and changes in the social or economic environment. Information therefore becomes the critical variable. Where does new information come from? How do people become aware of new information, respond to it or interpret it? What about attempts to alter how information is interpreted?

A focus on information beckons an investigation of attention, the political struggle to define political issues, the dynamic demands of problem solving and how competing policy demands independently help determine the public agenda, and how shifts in attention could lead to policy changes even if political preferences and institutions remain rigid. An underlying presumption is that attention is a scarce resource, with more problems than available information, and that changing the flow of information can lead to a change in the attention of policymakers. In turn, empirical work demonstrates that major policy changes are always preceded by shifts in attention.

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