Various theories exist to explain why public policy is created in the fashion it is. Some of these theories have to do with social and environmental factors. Some stress the importance of institutions and groups’ influence on the policymaking process. Perhaps most importantly, some theories stress the importance of the status quo and that large shifts in policy are not the norm. Punctuated equilibrium theory (PET) does just this. Rather than policy being something ever-evolving, PET suggests the opposite. In this framework, stagnation and the status quo are normal.
Other theories, such as the decision-making construction framework, suggest that policy changes are for the sake of reelection and are often the result of changes in norms and social constructions. Others, such as the advocacy coalition framework, assume that policy changes are the result of specialists within a policy field learning from one another. In this paper, I will first describe the basis of PET. From there, I am going to explain some of the nuances of this theory—namely its actors and the relationships within it.
Next, I will briefly describe two other aforementioned frameworks—social construction and advocacy coalition. This portion of the paper will also expound on some of the similarities and differences between PET and the two others. Finally, I will conclude this paper with a brief discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of PET.
According to Baumgartner, et al., “Punctuated equilibrium theory seeks to explain a simple observation: although generally marked by stability and incrementalism, political processes occasionally produce large-scale departures from the past” (Baumgartner, et al.
59). In other words, the policy world is usually marked by stability or, at the most, incremental change. According to punctuated equilibrium, policy change usually takes a great deal of effort, and largescale policy changes are rare. When large policy changes take place, they are easily tracked as a break away from equilibrium (also known as a “punctuation”).
At its core, PET takes into account the assumption of rationally bounded decision making—that is, the idea that decision-making on an individual level has many limitations. Because of this, the government cannot focus on every issue at once (albeit it can attempt to tackle many). Essentially, rationally bounded policy shift-makin comes down to the ideas of serial and parallel processing. In the idea of serial processing, only one thing can be processed at a time. In the concept of parallel processing, which helps explain how the government works, many things can be processed at one time. This policyshiftsnslates into the government being able to pass many pieces of legislation at one time by way of different branches, chambers, committees, and subcommittees. Contrary to what the ability of the government to use parallel processing to pass legislation should bring about, PET focuses on and seeks to explain the American system and its conservative, status-quo-centric nature. It works to find how often those “punctuations” in the status quo happen, and what their causes are.
PET, rather than focusing on the macro-level systems which affect policy, focuses on the political subsystems which create and control American policy. From this standpoint, Congress and the President are only the surfaces of policymaking. PET, in addition to Congress, the President, and the courts, takes a heavy focus on the idea of policy monopolies. These groups, also known as “Iron Triangles,” tend to be made up of three separate facets—the interested parties themselves, the bureaucracy, and Members of Congress. Policy monopolies’ success is also contingent a.) Having an institutional structure responsible for creating policy in a certain issue area and b.) Having authority is supported by a powerful idea or image of the policy. In a policy monopoly, the “interested parties” are individuals or groups associated with a policy issue who care deeply about a single issue in which the general populace does not usually have a vested interest (i.e. AIPAC with the US-Israel relationship or the NRA with gun rights). In a situation where a policy monopoly is in a position of power, the policy in which they are invested is unlikely to change—this supports the idea that American policy revolves around the status quo and incrementalism.
To examine the cause of policy change, PET takes focuses on the idea of “policy images” and how they vary. Policy images, in short, refer to how issues are discussed and understood by the public and the media. On a deeper level, policy images are made up of a mix of emotional appeals and empirical facts. In some cases, policy monopolies can create such a positive or charismatic image of a policy that the general public goes along with it. When those monopolies weaken, the opportunity for a large policy change is greater. In addition, large-scale policy image change can take place as a result of several other factors. These include, but are not necessarily limited to, exogenous factors (i.e. major events like 9/11), refocusing events (policy opponents choosing to ignore facts as they relate to the status quo and focusing on another image), and the loser appeal strategy (opposition groups gaining enough resources to challenge the policy monopoly) at work. Additionally, when actors are trying to change policy, they will often actively venue shop to find the outlet that will give them the desired change. This is exemplified in the 2015 overturning of the United States’ ban on gay marriage through the courts, rather than through Congress.
To measure and test PET, researchers often rely on budgets. Ordinarily, budgets do not change or only change very incrementally—they, like policy, live in a state of equilibrium. There tend to be very few moderate changes in state and federal budgets from year to year and, when changes exist, they tend to be few and large in scale. These punctuations in the budget are often indicative of punctuations in the policy. Budgets also serve as a good indicator of the size of punctuations—they can range from relatively small and easily adaptable to devastatingly large. The measure of budgets also allows for an easily quantifiable measure of policy adoptions which, in PET, is easier to measure than agenda-setting.
Conversely to PET, the social construction framework focuses less on subsystems and more on the top-down distribution of benefits and burdens by policymakers seeking reelection to different target groups. Groups that are more “desirable” (i.e. the middle class, the elderly, the military) will receive more benefits. Groups that are less “desirable” (i.e. criminals, oftentimes immigrants) receive more burdens out of policy. In the social construction framework, the policy is mostly about reelection. Policy benefits and burdens affect election outcomes, and they also affect the re-electability of the legislators who create policy.
Similarly to PET, however, “moral entrepreneurs” function in a way similar to that of the interested individuals of PET’s policy monopolies. In the social construction framework, these moral entrepreneurs are individuals or groups who hold a vested interest in a specific policy area. In this framework, moral entrepreneurs can be and often are instrumental in changing norms surrounding the policy. They are responsible for influencing those around them to support large policy changes, driving politicians to seek those policy changes in the pursuit of reelection.
The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) also shares similarities to PET in that it looks at the subsystems of policymaking as the root of policy change. It does, however, assume that the behavior of those subsystems is changed by society at large. Similarof to PET, ACF focuses on the fact that actors in it can include any individuals or groups who try to influence the affairs of the subsystem routinely (lobby groups, advocacy groups, etc.) ACF also makes the same assumption regarding bounded rationality that PET does.
Ultimately, PET provides a solid basis for loowithking at American policy changes, but it is hardly expandable beyond the conservative, status quo-orientedpolicythat American system. Unfortunately, PET has its drawbacks. Firstly, it cannot predict when changes in policy image will occur, as these are oftentimes arbitrary and simply unpredictable. Secondly, it does not focus on reception or reaction to policythe. Rather, PET only focuses on agenda setting and policy adoption. In a system where large-scale, comprehensive policy changes are rare, however, PET is possibly the most effective system to measure policy changesthatpolicy changes. The benefits of PET are many. First and foremost, it gives a testable and quantifiable hypothesis which has been tested across multiple issue areas. Unlike many other theories (i.e. multiple streams), it also can explain both large and small changes in policy. Theories such as ACF, multiple streams, and social construction tend to focus anges on policy and, if what PET is trying to say holds, it is those large punctuations that are important. Ultimately, PET is not perfect in explaining how or why policy changes, but neither is any other theory; however, with the American system being the way it is, it is among the most effective theories we have in determining how and why large-scale policy changes occur.