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The Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 31, No.

4, 2003

Is There Life After Policy Streams, Advocacy Coalitions, and Punctuations: Using Evolutionary Theory to Explain Policy Change?
Peter John
This article reviews the current state of public policy theory to find out if researchers are ready to readdress the research agenda set by the classic works of Baumgartner and Jones (1993), Kingdon (1984) and Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1993). After reviewing the influences of institutional, rational choice, network, socio-economic and ideational approaches, the article pays tribute to the policy streams, punctuated equilibrium and policy advocacy coalition frameworks whilst also suggesting that future theory and research could identify more precisely the causal mechanisms driving policy change. The article argues that evolutionary theory may usefully uncover the micro-level processes at work, particularly as some the three frameworks refer to dymamic models and methods. After reviewing some evolutionary game theory and the study of memes, the article suggests that the benefits of evolutionary theory in extending policy theories need to be balanced by its limitations.

Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny—and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).—Stephen Jay Gould, The lying stones of Marrakech: Penultimate reflections in natural history (pp. 104–105). Ten years has elapsed since the last major advance in public policy theory. For it was in 1993 that two key books were published: Baumgartner and Jones’ Agendas and Instability in American Politics and Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith’s Policy Change and Learning. Although these volumes had their antecedents, such as in the work of Kingdon (1984) and in the earlier writings of both sets of authors, they marked a “punctuation” in thinking about public policy. Both attracted a great deal of attention; they were complementary, and they set off research programs in the forms of detailed empirical research, edited collections of studies (e.g.,
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the APSA Public Policy Section voted Baumgartner and Jones a decisive first in their list of most important works in public policy in the last 10 years Shoup (2001). in which the observer can find. far more inclusive than others. 31:4 Baumgartner & Jones. the other is the character of public policy. and whether there is potential for a synthesis and further innovation. Appearing to confirm this claim. theory is a body or system of propositions about the causal relations that link together elements of the social. In contrast. The result is a system of human action. even with the subtleties built in. in their applicability. the links that derive from an original cause. economic. For empirical researchers. which often act as a set of determinants of others and to social and economic outcomes. which are more restricted assumptions about social and political relationships from which hypotheses can then be derived and tested. Important work has emerged since. That social science should take the route outlined above is no great surprise. What may be more useful to speculate is whether this particular kind of thinking about public policy has come to the end of its line of development. in particular whether evolutionary theory has the potential to push ahead the study of public policy. such as Jones’s Politics and the Architecture of Choice (2001) and the collection of essays in Sabatier (1999). What distinguishes one social science theory or framework from another is the primacy attached to certain core social processes. but they are linked by the aim to generalize. One is the nature of theory in the social sciences. Sometimes the more wide ranging theories are called frameworks that “organise diagnostic and prescriptive inquiry” (Ostrom. and seeks to provide a coherent and consistent account of reality. of course. 40). given the prevalence of research programs and how they generate knowledge. p. there are two things to bear in mind. Researchers in the field of public policy want to understand why public decisions and their outcomes change. Theorizing About Public Policy When considering about how to theorize about public policy. 1999. or explore a field of activity. but nothing has changed the direction of thinking in the same way that the cluster of books and articles at the beginning of the 1990s did. and political worlds. the empirical subtopics of most parts of political science tend to concentrate on one institution. It is a distinctive and problematic area of study. such as Congress. which limits the range of what is to be explained even if most aspects of social and political processes need to be referred to if the explanation is to have . and differ in their consequences for the publics that consume and appraise them. having applicability over a range of cases. Theories differ. 2002). Theory in social science is usually based on claims about the nature of human action and power relationships. such as voting behavior.482 Policy Studies Journal. What theories do is to generate models. vary from sector to sector. and in themselves they do not yield hypotheses. and extensive commentary in the rest of political science. both in space and time. stay stable. These relations are regularized.

such as pluralism and its successors. Public policy. Institutionalism: Old and “New” The best candidate for such an approach is institutionalism. tends to include in its baseline all political activity and institutions—from voting. local governments. international agencies. legislatures. such as lists of committees. The heterogeneity of the institutions under study and the complex networks among them preclude sequential sorts of explanation and rule out the use of theories that seek to understand how democratic the policy is. bureaucracies. which provides an account of human action based on a contextual understanding of the links and transactions among decision makers. deTocqueville.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. and Woodrow Wilson. as they often have a policy dimension. moreover. there can be no “stages” model of the political process to provide a simple map because of the multiple sources of causation. but there are also the practices embedded in formal organizational . and back again. from Plato to Montesquieu. The problem is that such theory may not be well adapted to the many faceted character of the policy process. a claim that is the core contribution of public policy studies to political science knowledge. with different instantiations.” it is better to talk of them in one sense. which has a long pedigree in political science and appears in the classic writings. but “good” description. In the 1980s and 1990s. The move to simplicity may simply impose a tautology or overextend a set of plausible and partial models of political action to the whole of the policy process. and Punctuations 483 depth. Sabatier. many of these theories have difficulties of their own. feedback. In part. on the other hand. Advocacy Coalitions. 1999). Importing Theory from Mainstream Political Science One answer to the search for theory is to take ready-made ones already in use in political science. This is the idea that formal structures and embedded norms have an effect on human action. In addition. the division of powers. decision making varies vastly from sector to sector. but in which social science hypothesis testing is not particularly relevant. parties. political cultures. and public decisions. then the models become redundant and degenerate to description—not poor description. but given the limited life-span of any ascription of “new. laws. and the salience of the higher courts. Coming up with theory that creates some simplicity or parsimony and that takes account of complexity is quite a challenge. such as electoral systems. The problem is compounded by the absence of a clear chain of causation from public opinion to parties and bureaucracies and back again. it was conventional to distinguish between the new and old variants. but which complicates the task at hand. As many writers on public policy have lamented (cf. institutions are formal arrangements. But if complexity is the theme. and the sheer complexity of what is going on. to the citizens who implement and evaluate public policies.

Given that institutions constrain public action and affect the costs and benefits of political participation. Unless institutions are entirely circumvented by networks and power relations. 1999). The former sense is better for empirical testing. between levels of government. it is not certain that institutional approaches offer an all-encompassing theory of policy change. such an effect is to be expected.g. but then doubts about macro schemes of politics set in and systems theorists of all sorts fell out of fashion. was useful in propelling progressive social policy ideas into the mainstream. and social science should start examining complex systems again. social change must play its role. polity. say. 31:4 arrangements. Institutional reform can also promote change. especially in relation to one set of interests and policy concerns. Steinmo. Thelan. Socioeconomic Change Socioeconomic changes must play their role in explaining policy change in the form of shocks and influences on the political system. Institutions often are the grit in political systems. which are some of the crucial issues. But does institutionalism explain policy change? In part. by blocking changes initially. In spite of these nuances. It is possibly the case that the intellectual reaction against systems theory and functionalism has gone too far. & Longstreth. which means they set out routines and constrain human action. one way to explain the advance of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s is through the institutional variation within U. but an institution. and comes out with the hardly startling finding that institutions matter for policy outputs and outcomes (e. For example. Institutions can account for change when they adapt.. & Bergman. it does. 2003). But social scientists do not now accept the basic assumption that there . The other alternative is when new groups gain institutional power by conquering one branch of the state and can advance their interests. Lane & Ersson. mainly because institutions are better at explaining the dampening rather than the amplifying of political processes.S. and so affect the choices of policymakers. they generally affect how policy is made as they influence the speed at which political systems attend to public problems. They may evolve according to their own rules. promoting reform. Of course. which are sometimes called standard operating procedures. such as improvements in policy performance or the imminence of policy disasters. When new pressure groups rub up against established sets of institutions. for example. the resultant change may be greater than would be expected. which embodied—perhaps by chance—the values of the reformers and gave them leverage. and the way in which policies attract rent seekers and principals seek to control their agents (Strom. Moreover.484 Policy Studies Journal. 1992. perhaps through the idea of coevolving social processes. the Supreme Court. Muller. They are generally stable. it is possible that institutions themselves adapt. the efficiency with which they aggregate public preferences. but institutionalists find it harder to explain bursts of change. A lot of academic energy was spent on the socioeconomic causes of policy change before the 1980s.

and the actions of entrepreneurs. Evolutionary game theory is the most appropriate application of rational choice theory to understand the movement from policy stability to change and vice versa. So do models developed by public policy researchers fare better? . as the latter influences the former. and stability by examining the strategies of actors located within political institutions and in society at large. such as from the size of the payoffs. Rational Choice Theory Rational choice theory examines policy change. Rather than being stuck in a one-shot game. Socioeconomic changes may act as a constraint on political action. With the prisoners’ dilemma. Thus it becomes part of the analysis of public policy without being all encompassing: an essential part of the toolkit of political scientists. Collective action may fail in many contexts. 1987). but the action needs particular conditions to indicate the strength and nature of that influence. few researchers would want to work without a theory of choice. variation. and Punctuations 485 is a transmission belt from society and the economy to the political system and its institutions. If Ostrom is right and ideas about cooperation apply to common resource solutions. which may lead to policy change or stability. which provide testable hypotheses. Advocacy Coalitions. the presence of selective incentives. Adapting Theory from Mainstream Political Science When taken as a set of hypotheses and claims. such as coalition building. which may not reflect the aggregation of preferences of decision makers but rise from strategic interaction imposed by the structure of the choices. But rational choice does not offer solutions for all cases and contexts. 1984. Taylor. It is better at explaining outcomes when preferences are settled. it is possible to model supergames or tit-for-tat simulations—to understand the ways in which cooperation emerges (Axelrod. ready to apply to certain contexts. rational choice helps researchers understand how societies may move from noncooperative to cooperative equilibria (Ostrom. 1998). an account of socioeconomic change and an understanding of the influence of institutions. for example. In short. the operation of smart institutions.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. but these approaches do not work as well as all-encompassing theories of public policy. it finds it harder to explain where those preferences come from and why they should change. but it is possible to overcome this dilemma through the evolution of cooperation. socioeconomic factors do not offer a theory of policy change except to show that policymakers react in different ways to the wider environment. Thus environmental policy or urban development policy may result from the degree of collective action possible. Here the “fitness” of the players comes from the success they have in playing the game. and both are highly variegated. Outcomes are the effects of these choices. the players can alter their strategies.

which have a long-term impact on the content of public policies. 31:4 The best candidate is group or network theory. A less polarized position would acknowledge that networks are more than contacts and power relations. Marsh & Smith. To what extent do thoughts or ideations about an issue such as poverty or deprivation act independently of the interests that advocate them? Knowledge in the policymaking world consists of claims about the origins and solutions to public problems. which occurs at the same time. Browne. and this idea was adopted and extended by the policy network literature in the 1990s (cf. they are sites for the exchange of ideas and perpetuation of social practices. But this claim takes the analysis to a new topic—the impact of ideas in public policy. Thus agricultural policy became harder to organize without thinking of international rules and economic competition.S. This theory claims that the structure of the coalitions across the complex policy sectors determines policy outputs. such explanations could be seen as a subtle form of institutionalism—the influence of regularized constraints on public action. and the skills at deploying them give ideas independence. which has emerged through the subgovernment literature and from organizational sociology.486 Policy Studies Journal. and it now links closely to environmental issues. subgovernments had long believed. and the debate continues (Dowding. But these accounts suffer from some of the same problems as institutionalism because networks are static in character. the argument is that the process of collecting evidence. 1995). In the United Kingdom. loyalty is a luxury that few can afford. with an influential article. Even though most knowledge is social in its construction. 2001). Thus social or organizational change usually affects networks. Ideas Ideas were the hot public policy topic of the 1990s. Marsh & Rhodes. when public problems became more intractable and policy sectors less distinct from each other. power relations. which link to normative claims and may either be accepted or debated by the participants in the policy-making process. and routines in these networks explain the differences across policy sectors and account for long periods of stability. The claim is that the values. Dowding (1995) has led a cogent attack on policy network approaches. 1992. which observers of the literature on U. In part. In the brutal world of politics. The long-term relationships between interest groups and executive agencies evolved into more complex networks between public and private organizations as the number of institutions and participants in the policy process grew after the 1960s. 2001. They may not even be much of a constraint. Public policy scholars became interested in the effects of knowledge on public policy. which operate outside and across the formal institutions. the existence of a network among organizations does not seem to be a particularly strong influence or constraint on human action. the creativity in generating the ideas. being epiphenomenal to the social and political systems they occupy. When power relations are at stake. .

making history a contest of ideas rather than interests. The question to ask is whether chance and history do not have a clear pattern because of variability of these relationships or whether they interact in a systematic fashion. more complex accounts of policy streams. Advocacy Coalitions. new techniques or solutions. and Punctuations 487 One problem is that it is not clear exactly what ideas are. But most public policy analysts would want to veer from such a strong articulation of ideas and would like to see them playing a role within the power play of institutions and choices. and ideas (John. and one is neither logically nor empirically prior. In the strong sense. particularly when they are asked to explain how it was that a proposal emerged rather than another. neither determined by them nor determining of them. 1998). which seize on ideas as ways to articulate their interests. but it is a truer statement than saying that one of these processes drives the others. which explains the fluidity and rapid change of the policymaking process. comprehensible when seen against a more conventional political backcloth. Depending on the author. the application of ideas to public policy is not a theory but the identification of a set of causal processes that link to others. systems of ideas. 1995) account. These frameworks may be called synthetic. Kingdon argues that there is an element of chance or a stochastic element. He found that policymakers often do not always know where policies come from. networks. making description much better than the application of theory. Is there any way out of this trap? “Synthetic” Accounts of the Policy Process In the 1990s. socioeconomic processes. and ideas interact with each other. and punctuations emerged. and then allow for the tests of models of political action derived from theory. What these theories or frameworks offer is a conceptualization of the relationship between the five core causal processes. choices. the campaigning role of groups. and the interests of different political actors. He does not say that . they are sometimes policy proposals. largely because they bring together much of the research on institutions. These are contingent on each other. Policy Streams and Windows The first is Kingdon’s (1984. Thus it makes sense to answer the question “to what extent did ideas about the causes of poverty influence social policy in the United States in the 1960s” by examining the growth of research on the issue. choices. such as the positions of political parties and runners for elected office.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. It might seem bland to say that institutions. advocacy coalitions. ideas-based approaches involve the claim that they constitute reality. If contingency and context take over. guiding preferences. networks. As with the other approaches in public policy. socioeconomic process. In this way ideas are closely connected to political interests. or discourse and language. then researchers have an endless variety of processes to observe.

Overall. an examination of overlapping jurisdictions in legislatures. There are. with its S-shaped curve. p. Indeed. He writes that policymaking is a “complex adaptive system” (1995. parties. which involves a realistic account of the limits of individual decision-making capacity. Kingdon uses evolutionary ideas to highlight the dynamic and contingent aspects of his account. discussing a few elements of evolutionary theory rather than adopting it wholesale. and notes that politics moves in fits and starts just like the natural world. without being an evolutionary model. 226). 224) in which agents react to changing environments and there is “continual Darwinian selection. New organisms are only partially formed until they find the right environment. p. 17). Baumgartner and Jones write. though they are cautious in their comparison. which Kingdon sees as “akin to biological natural selection” (p.” Kingdon’s conception of public policy as a “primeval soup” also implies evolution. Kingdon’s account is close to an evolutionary model of public policy. p. but existing institutions. 207). 31:4 randomness dominates or provides the sole explanation. The term draws from debates in evolutionary biology in the 1970s. and politics. In other words. some useful clues as to how one could emerge. Baumgartner and Jones cite Eldredge and Gould’s work. Kingdon argues that possibilities and limits of combinations create unique outcomes because “[e]verything cannot interact with everything else” (1995. the punctuated equilibrium model. The Punctuated Equilibrium Model The link to the study of evolution seems clearer in the punctuated equilibrium model of agenda change. as there is an interaction between randomness and the more recognizable processes of problems. The garbage can of conjunctions among the policy streams may be crucial in setting off deviations from existing policies. which is one of the ways in which agendas expand. “Policy diffusion. and public opinion still influence how and when they are introduced.488 Policy Studies Journal. and then they emerge as policies. but not others. There is a causal claim that aims to show how policy proposals are adopted and where some aspect of the policy process resembles genetic selection as identified by the biologists. these researchers tend to use punctuations as an analogy to the natural world. He refers to Eldridge and Gould when discussing the concept of discontinuous change. It is a useful component of his account of policy change. Here is a possible causal mechanism. It is not enough to call the policy process evolutionary because in some general way it resembles how biologists explain the natural world. there are certain combinations of ideas and proposals that have the potential to evolve. however. policies. There are several aspects to the explanation. Baumgartner and Jones use all these . is remarkably like the punctuated equilibrium model in which the system shifts rapidly from one stable point to another” (1993. and a critique of the idea that policies and agendas simply continue over time and only gradually change.

& Larsen. which is the existence of punctuations themselves. Sulkin. Indeed. Jones & Sulkin. can test the partisan change hypothesis. what is the exact shape of the Sshaped relationship between external change and policy outputs and outcomes. John & Margetts. Jones. what is the relationship between the nature of the policy input and the character of the policy-output. 2003).S. the process comes about from external events that disrupt the political system. In Reconceiving Decision-Making in Democratic Politics (1994. and then they respond to it with a different set of policy instruments. 1997. and once that happens. if the first task of the empirical program is to show that punctuations occur in the form of leptokurtotic distributions of policy or agenda changes around a median point. True. Jones. 1998. the bulk of the explanation rests with what is happening outside the policy process. 1993. But what causes the idea to get just that little bit ahead of the others in the first place? As Kingdon notes. there are many ideas competing for attention. 2000. political system. 2001. reflecting a shift in electoral preferences. 1991.. Baumgartner. by showing how policy monopolies can dissolve. True. Why do punctuations occur? Baumgartner and Jones argue that once an idea gets attention. 1993. p. it becomes unstoppable. 1999. but then something happens to make one more applicable than the others at a particular point in time. or there is partisan change when a new party enters power. and which are explored using longitudinal data on agenda setting and decision making (Baumgartner & Jones. 2001. 1998. at what point in the bend does the punctuation start to emerge. In one account. Jones. such as incrementalism. the second shows that these punctuations occur because of political changes (Jones et al. It also casts doubt on the claims of stable policy networks and the gridlock of the U. It is an important research program. But there may be some important questions unanswered: at what point do these external processes impact on decision making. Jones traces the process of policy change in two single-authored books.” There is more biology in Politics and the Architecture of Choice . 2003. and does the punctuated equilibrium tell us what kind of policies emerge or is it just about the quantity of them? The last question is the most crucial one of them all. Time series analysis. 1994. True.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. which has its expression in new policies. Advocacy Coalitions. 2002. 4). he argues that there is a great deal of sloppy thinking about punctuated equilibrium. making the model explaining the trajectory of change. 2002a. they are not solely descriptions. which has the ability to question established models of the policy process. 2002b. particularly the ones that are big enough to puncture the equilibrium. & Baumgartner. Jones. Baumgartner. fn. Jones. & Baumgartner. and Punctuations 489 elements to examine the core of the model. Either political systems respond to crisis. With these two types of tests. with dummy variables placed in the theoretically correct years. such as the way in which the political system was hit by the “earthquake” of oil price rises of the 1970s. Jones. 1998). & True. it is not descriptive but an explanatory model: “[I]n biology and paleontology the ideas of gradual and punctuated change both have causes. it will expand rapidly. as Kingdon notes. & Talbert. 18.

arguing that the characteristic of cooperation has been an advantage and that it is learned. such elements are hinted at in the text. can give rise to mistakes by policymakers. 2000). Although the book closes by an examination of the implications of adaptation. These coalitions form because certain interests link to them. & MacLeod. Jones does not develop a full-scale evolutionary model. Conformity “is inherited genetically because social learning provide an evolutionary advantage to the individual” (2001. The Policy Advocacy Coalition Framework Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith’s (1993) policy advocacy coalition framework is different than the two discussed above. The key idea of the framework is that there exist sets of core ideas about causation and value in public policy. which makes politics fundamentally different to natural evolution. the advocates have developed an effective research program to map the development of advocacy coalitions. as indicated above. too.” rather like the evolution of committee jurisdictions (Jones. There are several such ideas. but the book is more about decision-making theory. and it is possible to map these networks of actors within a policy sector. Jones starts from biological arguments about human cognitions and adaptation. 31:4 (2001). 117). Though Jones considers political institutions to be shaped by human choice. The cogency of this approach is threefold. Error correction can help avoid policy failure. 186). he argues these. He refers to the random processes of trial and error learning. Third. they are a political terrain through which different collations fight it out. In this way. which may help overall efficiency. Second. First. . though it may lock policymakers into suboptimal solutions. which is far closer to contemporary reality. through the coding of representation to legislative committees. Jones is close to accepting the existence of memes. Baumgartner.490 Policy Studies Journal. which is at the heart of social adaptation. There is a link to policy here because solutions may be transmitted over time. so it provides a grounded way of understanding the importance of discourse in the political process. Partly in response to wider social and economic changes or from political events and also from policy learning. the balance of power in these networks changes and the structure and memberships of the coalitions alter. which create about two to four coalitions. Like modern evolutionary theory. are rarely set in stone and change through interaction and adapt “on the fly. He argues that organizations evolve “using existing structures to meet new environmental demands” (p. Jones rejects the idea that such adaptive mechanisms lead not to a general equilibrium but to a series of partial equilibria (p. Change comes from the ability of these ideas to adapt—in their noncore aspect—ranging around a whole series of operational questions and “what works” in any one time or place. the ideational approach to policymaking is fully integrated into the way in which the coalitions operate. it leaves behind the idea that policy sectors are composed of integrated networks. p. 159). instead. such as emotions. but some genetic dispositions.

but not the whole of. and perhaps switches across the coalition divide. as some adaptation happens when partners maneuver for strategic advantage within and across the coalitions. Advocacy Coalitions. merely the possibility of adjustment within limits set by past adaptation. An Evolutionary Theory of Public Policy Because some writers on public policy use evolutionary ideas in their arguments. So some success may be explained by fitness for purpose. Of course. It is possible to use evolution loosely in everyday speech to mean slow change. social theory.. If these elements are not present. is part of. Closer to public policy are some recent accounts of British politics. But the core is some process of selection. it may be possible to argue that the next logical step is to develop the theory more fully. which is not predicated on plasticity. which may cause actors in the advocacy coalitions to shift coalitions. but if it is to make sense in social sciences. de Greene. but it is not the evolutionary process as such. then the evolutionary label is a heuristic device or an analogy. also. similar processes must be at work: a gene and a form of mutation and selection. economic geography. . There are a number of ways of applying evolutionary ideas in the social science. an evolutionary account. which is interested in the prevalence of nonlinear. There is causal process—one from gene mutation. which occurs through the interaction between wide external changes or shocks to the political system and the success of the ideas in the coalitions. The core mechanism is largely as Darwin argued: Genes randomly mutate. which would be similar to other areas of the social sciences that have developed evolutionary thinking. even just for tactical reasons. No coalition mindlessly advocates arguments that are unlikely to win. which means that the population changes in composition and functioning. individual organisms are selected by their environment. but some are not particularly relevant for public policy. the other from selection.g. The other set of writings about policy and social theory uses the evolutionary label to examine patterns of rapid policy change or system change and to study where cultures and policy ideas seem to evolve in stages. Thus the identification of chaotic process goes some way to indicate that an evolutionary or evolutionary-like mechanism is at work. and Punctuations 491 The approach has a neat account of policy change. 1994). and populations evolve. large variations may cause the emergence of new species. with many terms being used vaguely or rhetorically. there are limits on this adaptation: the strength of the core ideas. S-type relationships in the natural world. But that is entirely consistent with evolution. Thus the work on complexity and chaos theory. whereby cultures evolve. and evolutionary psychology. such as economics. There may be small variations. when applied to society and to politics (e. Part of the problem is that the debate about evolution is not clear. The evolutionary take on social history offered by Runciman (1989) resembles this pattern. new situations may deserve new arguments. Evolution in biology refers to a change in the gene pool of a population over time.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. others by adaptation. game theory. It is just possible that there is an implied evolutionary process.

1998). p. Ward suggests that the payoffs from the game change if firms get monopoly rents from adopting a new technology. because the firms in this game get certain rewards. An example of what is possible is Ward’s game theoretic accounts of state change (1998. whereby new styles of economic and political governance evolve together. though. which evolved in a path-dependent way. This outcome comes from a Nash equilibrium in which changing strategies would get a lower payoff.” The most powerful application of evolution to the social science is evolutionary psychology. 4) writes. There is a population of firms and a population of governments. there is a form of evolutionary selection. 31:4 such as the study of the U. Rational Choice and Memetic Models Rational choice theory and memetic models. such processes and outcomes do not add up to an evolutionary model of public policy. If they are likely to trade with each other. they do not get very far. path-dependent and directional change which is circumscribed in some way” (1998. There is an incentive against change. which is broader than the biological definition. fn. they can create a subset of firms that can stay in business even under . 31. 69). which are partly based on the regulatory regime in place. 2002). As Ward (1998. “[A]ttention is best restricted to areas where there is “selection” of variants which are produced “blindly. especially as it is possible to relax some of the more problematic assumptions and assume some bounded rationality. can offer an account of the causal process at work. Even though many of these authors are looking for selection mechanisms. which can exist in the new or the old arrangements.K. particularly evolutionary game theory. as in some way selection happens all the time with new policies. The interest of evolutionary game theory is to model what happens when the equilibrium shifts. and recent historical sociology (e. 1998. He sets out a coordination game to explain why the state may adopt certain policies to regulate business. they are about the impact of biological evolution on public policy. policy instruments. the switching of a strategy is punished. given all the other players’ strategies. but if they hold. is that it can provide a rigorous account of change over time.. though it is useful as a guide to decision-making. In the equilibrium situation. The advantage of the rational choice approach. Hay regards evolution as “incremental. Hay. 2003). If modern skulls house stone-age minds. decision making will be suboptimal and deviate from the rational model. and personnel. He examines the phenomenon of coevolution. The evolutionary take on this is how mutants or alternative strategies affect the game. even partially. Path-dependent change need not be evolutionary. But again.492 Policy Studies Journal. but it does not make sense to use this in general public policy theory. Just saying that selection mechanisms exist does no more than state the obvious. or a combination between the two. p. Conservative government 1979–1997 (Kerr & Marsh. The cost is the need to adhere to the assumptions behind the game. what matters is whether that selection is itself evolutionary.g.

with some individuals being lucky in hitting on the combination that has the chance of transmission and replication. social scientists have debated the existence of memes. which needs expression by a human agent. Thus it makes sense to examine the success and failure of environmentalist ideas. The human agent is defined by the interest but needs the idea to provide direction and identity. and what matters is whether the subset can get selective benefits from innovation and can support each other. say branches of the state or state and local governments. either through errors or through what biologists call recombination— when elements recombine to make new genes. And Ward’s model is not the only way of doing it. In turn. the governments also change their strategies and move to a new equilibrium point. it appears as a stochastic process. It is possible that Ward’s model could be extended to accounts of diffusion and innovation. Ideas need to have concrete expression in human agency—they need a carrier. who has an interest in the idea’s survival. But when seen as a set of individuals each trying out new strategies. To answer this question. it moves in that direction. Ideas are made of different elements. for example. a meme is an information pattern. in which new species arise in very small populations. They are different to genes in that they are more mutable. with chance and fitness built in. Memes transmit over time. As invented by Dawkins (1976). This creates the evolutionary path where replication and genetic advantage have been fostered. though the difference is that this theory is not about the rents of innovations but species that become isolated from their parental group. to generate a simulation to policy solutions over time. In terms of policy. held in an individual’s memory. for example. Advocacy Coalitions. and become successful. and a range of other actors. Another variant is diffusion in social networks as an example of replication and the simulation of the results of idea propagation. influence behavior. Although it is not as efficient as the biological example. where the state governments are seen as a strategic actor. uses a formal model. Stronger forms of evolution occur when new species are created—speciation. From the policy point of view.” popularized by Mayr.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. which often appear in marginal areas. Proponents of such accounts of evolution need to think carefully about what is being selected. The unit of selection is the idea or practice. the key people are Kingdon’s policy entrepreneurs. it is clear what distinguishes them. which may correspond to the genes in the mimetic account. which is capable of being copied to another. Mutation occurs through random processes of trail and error of these elements. Ward’s model is similar to “allopatric theory. there must be some stickiness or permanence to them and a sense that the ideas exist apart from each other. In this way. Farkas (1996). such selection may appear as a conscious activity. So although an environmentalist and an economic development advocate may share some ideas. who are activists with a particular interest in the success of the policy. there would need to be a number of policymakers. For each individual. but for the evolution idea to work. though in a less acute sense everyone is . and Punctuations 493 the old regulatory regime.

2003). it is just an extension of the public policy theory of the 1990s. the random recombinations of ideas from the “gene” pool. In that sense. In Dowding’s view. and examination of the payoffs in the development of evolutionary pathways. 1999). the poll tax. Rather than ideas. To understand replication through time.494 Policy Studies Journal. though it is not easy to separate out unconscious from conscious policy evolution because every policy usually has an element of conscious choice. it all happened too suddenly and at too high a level of conscious choice. 2000). memes are practices that have become institutionalized—quite the opposite of the poll tax episode. detailed studies are rare.K. and bureaucrats who have a stake in the implementation of particular policy choices. such as by governments as in Ward’s game. which examined the fate of different proposals for local taxes that the U. the evolutionary equilibrium is hard to dislodge. whereas a more defensible account of policy would examine the long-term evolution of memes through unconscious reflection and transmission. 31:4 an entrepreneur who has a stake in the policy outputs and outcomes: the citizens who vote for policies. but further selection during the implementation process killed the idea. What happens is that the idea not only takes hold in people’s heads. and was subject to a high degree of attention and opposition. Essential was the role of a small group of policy entrepreneurs who drove the policy forward. the way in which the intentions of central policymakers are driven by these processes. poll tax (John. The single person tax beat its competitors. including the controversial decision in 1990 to introduce a single person tax. which then continue over time. just as every game player does when acting for strategic advantage (John. Empirical Investigations Evolution does not disrupt the claims of the punctuated equilibrium and policy streams accounts. what it claims to offer is a better account of the causal processes at work in policy change. Another is the U. Similar to the punctuated equilibrium model. the policy process become unstoppable. Another familiar criticism is that it is possi- . Evolution suggests a key moment when trial and error or recombination allows a successful replication to take place and can then expand and take hold and challenge an existing policy monopoly. Examples include tax policy (Steinmo. possibly because selection is a messy business and it is hard to identify memetic processes. empirical studies can map the elements to the model and find out how they fit together: the nonlinear processes. 2000). government faced. the competition between units of selection. but it become institutionalized in practices and routines. politicians who seek to maximize votes and capitalize on policy opportunities. largely because the speed of events in the poll tax episode makes it unlikely candidate for a nonintentional process.K. evolution is not a new paradigm. Unfortunately. the separation of the ideas into nonmalleable units of selection. This account has attracted criticism (Dowding.

In the main. Even Runciman (1999) recognizes this: “And what about cultural behaviour which is the result not of imitation or learning but of enforced obedience to instructions from lawgivers and other people in positions not merely of influence but of power?” (page 2112) There are also problems with memes. networks. With more fine-grained tools of analysis. Evolutionary approaches based on the automatic adjustment of fitness for purpose will never work smoothly and probably serve as the background for the emergence of new political ideas rather than their sole determinant. not adding very much to conventional narratives and models. competition. Advocacy Coalitions. largely within the same mode but with more attention to the core causal processes than before. which can drive the policymaking and implementation processes. the claim is that random processes. and Punctuations 495 ble to say that much of what happens in politics is not the result of imitation but of power.John: Is There Life After Policy Streams. and the conscious adoption of ideas. and the punctuated equilibrium model. The other objection comes from the nature of politics itself—does the fact that politics is capable of imagining itself more than any other aspect of human existence automatically rule out evolution? The conscious choices that political actors make are made not only to advance their interests but are about what kind of world they prefer. Midgley (2000) cautions that the dream of standardizing the world into comparable units is an old chimera. Conclusion This journey through the policy theory literature does not reveal an imminent change to the central debates in public policy theory. and selection exert a background influence. which might be able to uncover processes not normally observed by political scientists. policy windows. and no doubt future tests of policy theory will show the same attributes. they are anything but standard. writers on public policy are working within the lines of argument set out by Frank Baumgartner. Careful tests of decision making is the strength of the researchers testing the policy advocacy coalition framework. But if evolution is to avoid being another tag or heuristic device. Bryan Jones. Although much is uncovered by institutional processes. and Hank Jenkins-Smith. Paul Sabatier. it may be the case that evolutionary theory becomes just another way of representing social and political facts. strategic interaction. it needs a great deal of attention to methods and definitions. As it is not possible to identify mechanisms in the same way. Researchers on evolution need to address the problems of transferring models from the natural to the social world. . Even if memes exist. writers in public policy can proceed with less fear that they are applying social science labels that describe rather than explain the policy process. This review seeks to show that it is a further possibility for advance. mainly because the causes are different. Evolutionary theory is one possible line of advance. long-term social and economic ideas. John Kingdon. as they lack the clarity of genes and seem to be an amalgam of thought processes and practices.

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