Changes in policy can be driven by a variety of factors each with a different effect on the type of change that occurs within policy (i.e. major change, incremental change, or no changes). The primary factors that will bring about a policy change are when a new president is elected, there are significant changes within the existing administration, a change in congressional membership, a focusing event (i.e. a massive disaster like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill or the 9/11 terrorists attacks), a shift in the national mood, and a change in policy image or venue. All of these factors result in the convergence of three primary factors which include opportunity for policy change, politics influences, , and an identified problem, which is considered as a “policy window” which is a short duration of time when enough political and mass public attention is focused on an issue which could lead to changes in policy.
When a new administration takes office, key political actors are introduced, or congressional membership changes, this opens up the opportunity for some interest groups, legislators, and agencies to push their positions and proposals when they may not have had the opportunity with the previous administration or political actors in office (Kingdon, 2003). New political actors will be eager to start strong once entering into a new office and therefore be more receptive to proposed policy changes that could make them look good while providing a desired need to the public.
Focusing events can have an effect on both the national mood and the way a policy image is perceived. For example, the 9/11 terrorists attacks identified that existing homeland security procedures as they stood were outdated, and with the national mood being outraged with the ensuing devastation, the collapse of the twin towers in New York and the extensive damage to the Pentagon building in Washington D.C., the existing policies images was damaged appearing as week and in need of change. As a result new policy reforms were made to both immigration and airport security policies.
Factors that lead to the promotion of a policy change are comprised of several elements. From the political side of things, a clear identification of a problem with the existing policy is a primary important factor which will help justify actions taken towards any made changes. The availability of alternatives for consideration will also aid in policy change as they provide a picture of options which could lead to the least effective result, status quo result, and most effective result with emphasis on economic costs required and greatest benefit given the expenditure. Factors which promote policy changes in the public arena include the media and volume of attention which is broadcast on a particular topic (i.e. currently the increased attention on Health Care Reform or following the progress of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill). The more media attention a topic receives the greater volume of public attention will be received which can influence the national mood putting pressure on local and state political actors, which will travel up the chain, putting increased pressure on Congress and the court system as lawsuits are filed and mass public support increases for reform. Since most elected officials would like to keep their job, they tend to be in favor of appeasing the majority of the voting public which will keep them in office come time for re-election. Additionally, Presidential involvement on an issue will provide a major increase in promotion for potential changes to an existing policy.
In contrast, there are just as many factors which could inhibit and prevent changes in policy from occurring. The lack of an obvious problem on why the policy should be amended will likely result in poor public and political support, making it difficult to even make its way onto the political agenda for consideration. Should the issue make it onto the agenda, the complexity and economic costs could result in negative feedback from politicians, interest groups, and the general public which could effectively eliminate the proposed change from advancing. Additionally, the more complex a problem, the greater likelihood there will be controversy between democrats and republicans on a successful path forward which could result in waning interest after long periods of time and energy have been expended, resulting in a stalemate and blocking of the proposed change (i.e. amending the Endangered Species Act; last amendment occurred in 1988, after several proposals and long, extensive arguments as recent as 2006, the Act still remains unchanged due to political and public stalemate). Many factors that can promote changes in policy can also inhibit them, such as increased media coverage against a topic (i.e. health care), national mood/attention against an action, and Presidential involvement expressing disagreement with a proposed police change action.
Major policy changes, incremental changes, and status quo/no changes to policy all occur under different circumstances. Most major policy changes occur following a change in the administration as the new president looks to make a good first impression (i.e. President Obama’s work towards Health Care Reform) or after a focusing event or event driven incident, such the natural disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina which lead to the proposed policy changes of the Federal Emergency Management Policy. Incremental policy changes are the norm in U.S. politics which are made at the margins of existing policies through minor amendments (Kraft and Furlong, 2010). These changes typically occur when a political actor is working towards making achievements towards their own initiatives while providing a service to the public, as evidenced through the Head Start preschool program or the Health Care Policy between the years of 1947-1981. Other policies, like the Endangered Species Act of 1973, do not go through any change following several attempted proposed amendments due to several reasons including a lack of efficient, readily available solutions to identified problems, lack of consensus on how to solve the problem, lack of political and/or public support, or the issue may be overly complex with no clear benefit which would result from a policy change.
Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, 2nd ed. Longman Classics, 2003.