Bryan D. Jones
Policy Agendas Project
Department of Government
University of Texas at Austin
Existing literature on the agenda setting process is grounded and well cited in studies of U.S. national institutions, but emerging scholarship has taken the fundamental principles of agenda setting — attention, information, and learning — and has extended their applicability to understudied participants and institutions. This essay highlights three areas of study that have undergone particular grown during the last few years and best represent the trend of applying the well understood dynamics of agenda setting to a broader swath of participants in the policy process. We first examine how scholars have focused on agenda setting within U.S. state and local governments and the way these institutions balance their agenda-setting needs internally, while still trying to be heard within a federal system. Secondly, we highlight policy scholars’ contributions to create better definitions and measures of the relationship between the media and policy process. Finally, we explore the contributions to the broader agenda setting literature made by scholars examining non-United States institutions. These three categories are but a part of the growing trend in the subfield to expand the scope of agenda setting research.
Key words: Policy process, Agenda Setting, State/local governments, media, and Comparative policy studies.
The public policy discipline is constantly evolving to develop a more complex and dynamic understanding of institutions, actors, and information, and the subfield of agenda setting is no exception. Traditionally, studies of agenda setting have focused on agendas within U.S. federal government subsystems. These are now being augmented by a broader examination of agenda setting dynamics to include underdeveloped avenues of study. John W. Kingdon (1995) posits that two factors have the ability to direct agenda setting and the development of policy alternatives: active participants and the processes through which issues rise to prominence. In many new studies, these foundational theories of the policy process remain constant, but new insights regarding participants and the roles they play within the policy process come to light.
This evolution in the field is evident in a sample of recently prominent subtopics that represent agenda-setting studies’ growth toward examining alternate processes — state and local governments, the media, and comparative policy. These three fields represent previously underdeveloped platforms for policy scholars to better understand and test traditional notions of the agenda setting process and to understand how these dynamics are generalizable outside of the well-tilled field of existing literature. These topics and the particular citations for each represent some of the innovation that has occurred over the past few years. They are certainly not an exhaustive list of the innovative work that has been done on agenda setting. Others, such as Peter May have added considerable insight into policy regimes and boundary spanning issues (Jochim & May 2010; May, Jochim, & Sapotichne 2011; May & Jochim 2013). Christian Breunig and Chris Koski’s work on state budgets and the broad consequences of incrementalism and policy punctuations (2012) also advance our understanding of agenda setting.
The topics and scholars highlighted in this piece represent the trend of moving beyond the institutions that are commonly studied to uncover insights about the agenda setting process. These scholars represent a larger movement toward a richer understanding of agenda setting, which can only be developed by analyzing the alternate avenues through which political actors try to influence the agenda space. By looking beyond the institutions that were used to uncover the initial dynamics of the policy process, we can uncover relationships that are generalizable across systems, but were not as apparent in the in the original studies.
The foundations of agenda setting come directly from studies of relationships within the U.S. federal government, and as a consequence, the classics in the field all rely on observations from one policymaking system (Schattschneider 1957; Cobb & Elder 1972; Kingdon 1995; Baumgartner & Jones 2009). The literature implies or states directly that the uniqueness of the American system led to relative ease of agenda access and hence policy punctuations. Baumgartner and Jones (2009) suggest that federalism and the associated increase in the number of policymaking venues should increase the ability of new policy ideas to receive serious consideration by policymakers. But such ideas can only be tested for their broad generalizability if agenda-setting processes are studied in other institutional systems.
The expansion of agenda-setting research in recent years has led not just to more research, but more research on different institutions. In this review, we discuss three subtopics of agenda setting that recent scholarship has emphasized. First, we examine increased analysis of agenda setting within state and local institutions to find that these institutions engage in two levels of agenda setting: the first, occurring within state and local institutions and the second, occurring when state and local governments’ attempt to influence the agendas of federal institutions. The first variety of agenda setting is critical to developing an understanding of how states and local actors manage their agendas without the outside influence of the national government (Heidbreder 2012). The second addresses an understudied aspect of federal-state relations in which the state tries to communicate its preferences to change the national agenda (Leckrone & Gollob 2010). In both types of agenda-setting research, the authors move beyond conventional discussions of how state agendas are influenced by the national government and examine how states act to promote their own interests, regardless of attention from the national government (Lowery, Gray, & Baumgartner 2010).
Next, we turn to the role of the media in the agenda setting process and note two important ways the literature has grown. First, we stress the scholarship that denotes the schism between agenda-setting definitions in political communication and policy studies literatures and the analyses that attempt to narrow this divide (Wolfe, Jones, & Baumgartner 2013; Boydstun 2013). Second, media influences on the policy process are still not fully understood (Vliegenthart & Walgrave 2011). New scholarship emphasizes going beyond traditional methods of newspaper analysis and notions of media as a vehicle for positive feedback in order to explore the connections between media and elite attention. This two-prong expansion in the way policy scholars examine the media’s effects has the potential to improve the field by widening the media’s applicability within the policy process.
Finally, we review the subtopic that has, without a doubt, undergone the widest expansion of research on agenda setting: comparative policy. Comparative policy studies continues to flourish as a field, as it has over the last half century (Gupta 2012), and a closer study of agenda setting is a component of that recent growth. Within each international institution, scholars attempt to examine the agenda-setting process, noting the ways in which participants and the process are affected by different rules, procedures, and customs. The key comparative question has been how agenda setting processes vary across such divergent institutional systems (Baumgartner, Jones, & Wilkerson 2011)? To be able to conduct cross-sectional analyses of policy, the field requires more robust empirical study within the international systems in order to draw comparisons.
Individually, these three avenues offer new insights to the agenda-setting literature, but taken together, represent a broadening of the applicability of established agenda-setting principles and aid in the establishment of a new direction for future agenda-setting research.
Much of the established work on policy processes within the American federal system have focused on either a top-down perspective of national influence on state policy (Karch 2006; Baumgartner & Jones 2009; Wood 1991) or state-to-state policy diffusion (Boushey 2012; Berry & Berry 2007). Scholars have made considerable advances in these fields, particularly Graeme Boushey’s reconceptualization of diffusion dynamics, which highlights diffusion as a largely incremental process, punctuated with periods of rapid diffusion, the product of policy feedback (Boushey 2010). But the literature has recently taken an important turn away from these well-studied areas. Previously, conspicuously absent was an exploration of the differences between state and national institutional agendas and how states affect national agenda construction. New research that treats the state as an influential actor, rather than a policy test balloon, highlights why it is critical to move beyond the simplistic understanding of states as “laboratories of democracy” (Baumgartner & Jones 2009). States have their own agenda priorities, and these priorities will affect how states act in the federal system, attempting to influence the federal agenda in pursuit of state-level goals. The emerging literature about states’ impacts on internal and external agendas demonstrates the importance of challenging accepted views of the interactions between federal levels.
The established literature on agenda setting takes into account that the policy aims of state or local governments are often different than the national government (Baumgartner & Jones 2009; Volden 2005; Lowery, Gray, & Baumgartner 2010), but previously there had not been much work on the characteristics of those differences. Given that there is considerable variation across the fifty states and thousands of sub-state-level governments, the inherent differences between governments make it critical for state and local agendas to be considered independently of the way in which national and sub-national governments interact.
One of the ways state and local agenda setting is different from the national level is the potential influence of direct democracy through the legislative initiative and referendum. David Damore, Shaun Bowler, and Stephen Nicholson (2012) examine how different actors use the initiative or referendum in order to shape the agenda to best suit their interests. This study highlights how the dynamics of these individual processes result in adoption by different actors within a system: the initiative has long been a primary tool of interest groups, while the referendum has become primarily a tool of legislators. These findings reflect a distinctive characteristic of sub-national governments in the United States, where state constitutional mechanisms have allowed direct democracy to introduce additional methods for getting an issue on to the agenda.
Agenda setting in state government is also unique because of the differences in powers between many governors and the president. The president has limited legislative powers: he has the power to sign or veto laws (Art. 1 Sect. 7) and the responsibility to recommend legislation to Congress (Art. 2 Sect. 3), but the legislative powers of state governors is much more variable. Brianne Heidbreder’s study of gubernatorial agenda setting illustrates how governors have gained more formal powers through setting the agenda (2012). They develop these formal powers by taking the charge on producing solutions to policies that had long been the purview of the federal government, by embracing longer terms in office, which allowed for more time for policy in between campaign cycles, and through increased responsibility for producing the budget, as well as tools like the line item veto, which allows the governor in many states to shape legislation from start to finish. These additional powers require scholars to consider the many other ways the executive can shape the institutional agenda other than “going public” (Kernell 2007) or using persuasion (Neustadt 1990).
A third aspect of state and local agenda setting that differs from our understanding of the process at the national level is how the process is perceived by policy elites. Xinsheng Liu, Eric Lindquist, Arnold Vedlitz, and Kenneth Vincent’s study of policy elites highlights a number of differences about the process at the local level (2010). Using Kingdon’s multiple streams theory as the framework for understanding the local policy process, they find that, in lower levels of government, consensus, and coalition building heavily influence policy making, whereas shifting public mood and opinion drives the national policy process. Additionally, policy elites most often report policy compatibility as the reason for the success of a particular policy alternative, as opposed to technical feasibility, value acceptance, or anticipation of future constraints, which fit more prominently in the Kingdon conception of the characteristics that allow policy alternatives’ to survive, all of which were conceived of while studying the national government. These deviations from Kingdon suggest that agenda setting on the local level differs from agenda setting on the national level. These works offer new avenues through which to consider state and local agenda setting dynamics. These differences, whether they are institutionally founded or embody elite perceptions of the process, are not merely nuance: they have the potential to alter fundamental understandings of the policy process. These studies offer new directions and questions for an improved understanding of the policy process.
As literature on state’s agenda setting dynamics grows, it is vital to pay attention to alternate ways in which states and the federal government interact regarding policy agendas in the federal system. As mentioned previously, a great deal of research has looked at the top-down pressure the national government puts on states to consider certain issues. Many scholars are beginning to consider how states work from the bottom-up, trying to influence the national agenda. One such study, by David Lowery, Virginia Gray, and Frank Baumgartner, examines whether policy attention on the state level can influences agenda setting on the national level (2010). They find that only in rare situations can states directly influence the attention the national government pays to issues, suggesting that “to a considerable degree, state and national legislatures still have their own policy agendas and their own policy cycles” (p. 304). An important take away from this study is that if, in the short-term, states have little to no effect on the national policy agenda, then it is important to refine or eliminate the assumptions that exist regarding the influence state policy innovation has on national policymaking. A great deal of the work on policy diffusion rests on the premise that the federal government learns from state-level experimentation, and while there has been evidence of this in terms of single issues, its absence on a larger, more systematic scale throws many theoretical assumptions into question.
Another study of bottom-up agenda setting influence is by Westley Leckrone and Justin Gollob who observe that while states cannot compel the federal government to act, that has not stopped states from communicating their preferred positions to Congress (2010). Leckrone and Gollob examine memorials, which are requests to the federal government that convey a preference either for or against some action. Because they offer specific direction from states to the federal government, they offer political scientists the opportunity to understand how states try to affect action at the federal level. By looking at whether states send policy messages, and if so, on which policies, they can develop an alternate method for understanding the federal-state relationship. They find that 95 percent of memorials are used to convey substantive policy messages, focusing on policy topics ranging from state-specific and to general national issues, but primarily, are used in an attempt to influence policies that are in the domain of the national government. By examining an alternate method of communication between levels of government, Leckrone and Gollob open the door to further research by seeking insight through the examination of understudied aspects of the policy process.
The recent literature on agenda setting sees states as more than second-class venues for policy entrepreneurs to bring their issues (Jones & Baumgartner 2009; Kingdon 1995). States have policy agendas, which may or may not be similar to the national agenda (Lowery, Gray, & Baumgartner 2010). Only with further study will the similarities and differences between state, local, and national agenda setting processes be understood. These studies offer a starting place, highlighting sources of data that have previously been ignored and offering important challenges to the assumptions that have permeated the study of agenda setting due to the national government bias inherent in much of the foundational work, proving that there is still plenty more work to be done on state and local agenda setting processes.
The ambiguous role of “the media” in political science is widely cited (Dearing & Rodgers 1996; Bennett 1990; Baumgartner & Jones 2009; Cook 2005), but literature that thoroughly examines the media’s impact on the public policy processes is much more limited. Even if we were to narrow our focus to the role of the news media within the subfield of agenda setting, the majority of research that addresses tends to perpetuate broad, vague notions of how the media might influence the policy process. Amber Boydstun offers one of the few comprehensive overviews of the status of the media within the political process — specifically highlighting how media outlets shape attention as it fluctuates across issue areas (2013). She proffers that the effect of media is not constant, but rather episodic and abrupt, raising attention for some topics but generally ignoring most. The media, like the policy process, is dynamic and it is this dynamic relationship that requires further research and development. However, without more work like hers, attempting to develop a cohesive theory for the interaction of media with all parts of the policy process, we are left trying to piece together disparate theories.
Recent research has attempted to better situate the intricate relationship between media and public policy within a larger framework of information exchange, while at the same time reconciling these information dynamics with the conceptual expansion of the term “agenda setting” to incorporate broader literatures with policy scholars’ established definitions. Recent literature includes the study of media’s down-reaching effects on the policy process, as well as media’s position relative to diverging agenda-setting definitions.
The media exist within a complex system of information, and the exchange of information across institutions is critical to an understanding of media influence. Bryan Jones and Michelle Wolfe offer that, in addition to the media shaping what and how we think, the media serves a vital function: sorting out what information is received and how it should be prioritized (2010). Scholars continue to debate the impact of media — its indexing function or its ability to shape preferences — but the authors posit that a more fruitful framework for understanding the media in the policy process is by examining the information exchange in the interactions between policy communities and the press. Public policy is a dynamic process, and according to Jones and Wolfe, our assessments of the participants within that process must also reflect the dynamism of political interactions. By moving beyond static assumptions regarding an important set of actors in the policy process, future scholarship has the potential to uncover the overlooked dynamics and the far-reaching effects on agenda setting.
The varied relationship between press and politics is also evident by the separate conceptualizations of media agendas and policy agendas are able to coexist — despite many scholars disregard for their compatibility. Michelle Wolfe, Bryan Jones and Frank Baumgartner provide a synoptic outline of the simultaneous, yet disparate use of the term “agenda setting” between policy and political communication studies (2013). Policy scholars have long analyzed agenda setting by assessing the relationship between boundedly rational government elites and attention, as is evident in Kingdon’s definition of the policy agenda as “a list of problems to which government officials, and those associated with government, are paying serious attention” (1995, p. 3), a definition that forms the foundation of the literature. Political communication scholarship has long operated from a definition of agenda setting focusing on public, rather than elite, attention. The theoretical foundation of public agendas relies on Walter Lippman’s work on the news media as a filter for reality (1965) and has been further refined by McCombs and Shaw’s study on the media’s ability to set the public agenda (1972). Wolfe, Jones, and Baumgartner formally acknowledge the schism between the two fields, and in recognizing this discord, encourage future scholars to merge the two notions of agenda setting by retrieving them from their individual, academic silos. This work pushes the fields further toward analyses that consider the broad implications of the media on elite policy and public agendas in tandem. It has long been understood that the relationship between policies and publics is not limited and unidirectional (May 1991; Soroka & Wlezien 2005), and the press is but one of many factors that mediate such associations. By encouraging scholars to move in this direction, Wolfe, Jones, and Baumgartner’s work illuminates a new path for scholars of the policy process.
Another attempt to build bridges between previously separate literatures is Rens Vliegenthart and Stefaan Walgrave’s work on partisan moderators of the media’s agenda influence. They identify one way to operationalize both policy and communication studies’ different perceptions of agenda setting across nations (2011). By applying a methodology to test an argument similar to Wolfe, Jones, and Baumgartner, the authors identify the dissonance between communications and policy agendas, and attempt to bridge the divide by depending on communications’ long-use of media coverage as an indicator of attention, while adopting the dependent variable, policy agendas, from political science. Emerging research in the policy field continues to test the applicability of this methodology, but Vliegenthart and Walgrave demonstrate that by manipulating the model to assess how parties, parliamentary action, and temporal concerns temper the media’s agenda setting influence, they offer a rigorous way to test a theoretical bridge between scholarly literatures. They find that media have a considerable effect on the agenda setting process, but that effect is greater for opposition parties and smaller parties who lack the ability to specialize forcing them to rely on journalists, echoes the Baumgartner and Jones’ characterization of outside or minority interests who draw attention to an issue in order to gain access to a previously inaccessible policy-making space (2009). The study demonstrates that media effects are not fixed and widening the scope of inquiry beyond the literature’s established practices to include research on the political behavior of parties and work on political communication produces better analysis of the policy process. By stretching our agenda-setting approaches, we simultaneously add depth to the well-established breadth of policy process analyses.
Gunner Thesen promulgates further discussion of the relationship between the political agenda and parties and the link the media plays in that relationship, as he finds that opposition parties will actively respond to negative media stories that find faults with the governing party (2011). This attention-raising strategy used by opposition parties, which has ramifications for both media and political agendas, is then countered by the government, which attempts to defend its policy choices and exhibit competence publicly. Issue ownership and party competition contribute to parties’ desires to define the policy space in their own terms and the media is the primary linkage between the two sides. Thus, media create and frame public perceptions regarding social problems, and the political agenda space is built on those realities, which are again perpetuated by the media agenda. This cyclical relationship highlights the inextricable place media have in the agenda setting process.
So while some scholars have focused on a broad explanation of media with the policy process, others have advanced an agenda that considers the need for a more detailed understanding of the media’s impact on the agenda setting process process. The recent scholarship, discussed above, has concluded that the media matters when it comes to agenda setting, but exactly what that role is and how we can measure it, are questions for additional inquiry.
By furthering the methods by which we measure media influence, we are able to make more informed judgments about its role in the political process. As previously mentioned, agenda setting is part of a larger discussion about the flow of information within the political process, and Stuart Soroka is one scholar who has examined the importance placed on that flow of information. He emphasized the media’s function as a gatekeeper between the information shaping the policy process and the information actually distributed to the public (2012). This agenda setting function shapes the public “reality” and Soroka proposes measuring the disjunction between information received and information distributed through automated content analysis measures that assess tone, a novel approach to this task. Soroka points out that the application of such analytic tools goes well beyond the agenda-setting function of the media and the topics that it distributes, and has greater implications for our ability to study of the flow of information (2012). Information and the public recognition of said information is what garners attention and fills the limited agenda space.
Michelle Wolfe also examines the role of media in the information process by questioning a popular precept in punctuated equilibrium theory: that the media serves as a promulgator for the positive feedback process (2012). She challenges that assumption with a study of whether the media is able to slow the legislative process. She theorizes that, in addition to the media as an “agent of change,” the media can legitimize new participants and arguments, which slows the policy process. Wolfe finds that the speed of legislative passage decreases with increased media attention. Policy change is not consistently incremental (Baumgartner & Jones 2009), and Wolfe offers a dynamic understanding of the media’s effect on policy that echoes that variability. The media introduces friction into the political system that hinders policy change, along with aiding policy feedback. This research supports the broader conceptualization of the media as part of a complex information processing system (Workman, Jones, & Jochim 2009) with dynamic processes of it own within the feedback process.
In addition to these more detailed analyses of the role of the mass media, scholars continue to develop methods for assessing media affects on the legislative process. Peter Van Aelst and Stefaan Walgrave offer a comparative agenda-setting perspective that finds that although the mass media affects agenda setting in the aggregate, a more nuanced analysis of how that happens is necessary to fully understand the relationship between media and policy (2011). A survey of both subjective and objective methods for studying the role of the media finds that subjective methods, such as government interviews, suggest a large media effect whereas objective methods, such as time-series studies, indicate a more modest or limited effect. This contradicts the Kingdon finding that the media has a minimal affect on the policy process: a conclusion he reached through a series of interviews with government officials in the 1980s (1995). Van Aelst and Walgrave posit that government officials often overestimate the effect the media has on the political agenda. In their study of members of Parliament in Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden, the authors find that almost two-thirds of MPs agree that the media sets the political agenda more than politicians or events. Van Aelst and Walgrave also look beyond traditional newspaper articles in their objective assessment of media impacts, and find that television news has a greater impact on MP’s perceptions of agenda setting influence. Van Aelst and Walgrave attribute the subjective/objective discrepancy to weak elites, misplaced initiators, positive feedback, and media power. This dual method highlights the importance of research design in understanding political actors impacts on the system. Additionally, their findings regarding the variable magnitude of media effects on policy go beyond the accepted notion that the media has “some impact.” This is an important step forward for agenda setting studies, but further work still needs to occur to test the generalizability of these findings.
Van Aelst and Walgrave observe a difference between the agenda-setting effects of newspapers and television — positing that not all mediums behave similarly in the policy process. Eric Jenner continues this line of research by looking at the disparity in agenda-setting effects between newspaper articles and newspaper photographs on environmental issues (2012). His approach measures how each affects issue salience for members of the public and policy spheres — harkening back to the Wolfe, Jones, and Baumgartner discussion of the bridge between public and policy agendas. Jenner finds a substantively different relationship between public and policy responses when classified by media type. While many policy scholars measure attention through news articles, Jenner finds that photographs elicit greater attention from policy elites within congressional committees, while public attention is more responsive to newspaper articles. Jenner’s work is representative of recent research that aims to apply more fine-grained analytical techniques to the policy process. His work suggests that nuanced approaches to agenda setting — moving beyond vague terms like “media” — are needed to fully grasp impact of actors on the policy process. Media and agenda-setting interactions cannot be understood without distinguishing between types of agendas, in particularly the distinction between public and policymaking agendas, and will be far more robust as scholars disaggregate “the news” into its various mediums. This finding, if applied to scholarship on broader policy process, could revolutionize our understanding of policy dynamic through it substantive differentiation between the effects that various actors have on the process. As has repeatedly been noted, this is a dynamic process and failing to account for the dynamic variation, for the sake of generalizability, has the potential to ignore considerable advances for the field.
The comparative agenda setting literature has moved beyond showing the viability of policy process models in non-American settings toward exploring how these models operate similarly or differently within different political systems. A great deal of this work is due to the development and expansion of the Comparative Agendas Project (http://www.comparativeagendas.info/ ). The Comparative Agendas Project is a network of political system-level projects, each of which focuses on one of fifteen countries and the European Union. Each country project has established a policy content coding system, based on the one developed by the U.S. Policy Agendas Project (http://www.policyagendas.org/). The collaboration allows scholars to study policy changes over time across issues and across countries with consistent measures.
One of the primary findings of scholars working within the Comparative Agendas Project has been the rejection of the ‘standard model’ of agenda setting in comparative analysis. In that standard model, policy change is a result of the replacement of policymaking elites through elections: because policymakers and their preferences change through elections, the policies advocated by the governing coalition shift. Surely, then, the issues addressed change as a consequence (Jones & Baumgartner 2012). In this view, everything works through elite preferences, which are influenced by the masses via elections. As attractive as the standard model is, it does not account for much policy change and it does not account for the issues addressed by a political system. Several of the papers in a recent special issue of Comparative Political Studies center on progress in the comparative analysis of agenda-setting, which shows that the issues addressed by political systems are not governed by elections (Baumgartner et al. 2011).
If not elections, then what causes policy change? Theoretically grounding much of the comparative agendas research is work on the dynamic relationship between information, preferences, and institutions in the policy process. Baumgartner, Jones, and Wilkerson (2011) offer an overview of such comparative analysis and emphasize, that of those three principles, the role of information in agenda setting needs further exploration within comparative analysis. Policy change often originates from the emergence of new information and policy learning, rather than solely from changes wrought by the electoral process (Workman, Jones, & Jochim 2009; Sabatier & Weible 2007). As a consequence, understanding how political systems process information is a key in our understanding of agenda setting. The result is a clarion call for comparative scholars to move beyond election and party-control analyses to assess the policy dynamics across political systems (Baumgartner, Jones, & Wilkerson 2011).
Attention also plays a key role in information processing for political systems as well as for individuals (Jones 2001; Jones & Baumgartner 2005). New information about a subject may draw attention to a frame or aspect of the policy that was not previously critical to the debate (Baumgartner, Jones, & Wilkerson 2011). The theory of punctuated equilibrium suggests that the shifting of attention, based upon the information being presented, is a vital component to changes in policy action.
Utilizing these theoretical underpinnings, comparative policy scholars have examined a wide range of institutional frameworks. Will Jennings, Shaun Bevan, and Peter John (2010) examine the Speeches from the Throne — a tool for expressing executive policy priorities in the British government — and find remarkable stability in the executive agenda. Consistent with studies of executive agenda-setting communications in other countries, the content of the Speech from the Throne is shaped by the limited agenda space. Jennings, Bevan, and Johns show that, while the size of the agenda has remained stable over time, those topics that make it on to the agenda have changed to reflect shifting priorities and information. This paper reinforces the idea that the process for setting an agenda is comparable across systems, but the intricacies of particular national institutions are critical to the policy outcomes that occur across studies.
Peter John and Shaun Bevan use the legislative agenda of the United Kingdom as a case study to better understand policy changes that result from information, attention, and agenda shifts (2012). The authors’ study assumes the tenets of punctuated agenda change and seek to create a typology to better understand how to categorize the magnitude of punctuations. John and Bevan build on the punctuated equilibrium literature, which states that political agendas can be stable for long periods of time, but are also susceptible to system-wide shocks of varying magnitude (Baumgartner and Jones 2009). The magnitude of those shocks is what John and Bevan seek to divide into three categories to better understand how and when shocks will result in the shift the political agenda. John and Bevan argue that to understand causal processes, we must address all three categories. Their work demonstrates how scholars can move beyond a dichotomous understanding to uncover dynamics of the policy process within and across systems.
Additionally, important work is being done on agenda setting within supranational institutions. Petya Alexandrova, Parcello Carmmina, and Arco Timmerman’s study of agenda setting within the European Council highlights the many aspects of the Council’s policy process that mirror the punctuated equilibrium dynamic found in other institutions and countries, but also demonstrate how the unique structure of the Council and its interactions with other political institutions make it vital to examine the agenda-setting process without adopting assumptions from works on other types of governing bodies (2012). Though the agenda space is limited, like all institutions, the European Council has a more flexible institutional framework because, unlike national executives, there is no obligation to set out yearly priorities. This institutional difference reveals important characteristics about the issues that reach the European Council, but also highlights the impact that institutional constraints, such as setting out an advanced agenda, have on national agenda formation. This is but one signal as to how supranational institutions can share characteristics with national institutions, but contain distinctive characteristics, which require separate, rigorous analysis.
As comparative policy analysis moves beyond demonstrating the applicability of simple cross-state issue comparisons, many studies have also started taking a closer look at different political systems to uncover the intricacies of agenda setting within elite institutions, particularly in multiparty systems. Rens Vliegenhart, Stefaan Walgrave, and Corine Meppelink use the case of the Belgian Parliament to assess how inter-party agendas and party competition shape the policy agenda (2011). They argue that the party dynamics found within the institution of Parliament offers better understanding of how policy agendas are formed because mimicking behavior between political actors may lead to the creation of a unitary parliamentary agenda beyond specific party preferences. If differing parties draw attention to an issue, others are likely to follow if they fulfill certain characteristics such as speaking the same language, are part of a coalition, form an electoral pact, or occupy a niche within the political landscape. This initial analysis of party-level agenda setting provides the foundations for other countries and other political systems to begin a cross-comparison.
A different view on the interaction between parties and institutions is evident in Christoffer Green-Pedersen and Peter B. Mortensen’s article on agenda setting in the Danish Parliament (2010). The central hypothesis is that opposition parties have more opportunities to advance their preferred issues: governing parties cannot concentrate solely on issues that are advantageous to them because the public expects them to be responsive to all issues. As Green-Pedersen and Mortensen point out, opposition parties can push governments to discuss issues that are politically and electorally advantageous to the opposition even if they are distracting or potentially damaging to the strength of the government. The authors note that this conclusion might not be the same across all parliamentary systems, which reinforces the need for further examination before any generalizable claims can be made on a cross-national scale.
Studying comparative agendas across institutional settings is an emerging field within policy studies, particularly as scholars increase their ability to theorize across systems and employ methods for rigorous inter- and intra-system comparisons. The growth and refinement of cross-national efforts, like the Comparative Agendas Project, aid such research, and provide a vehicle for more robust scholarship within comparative policy. Further intra-state research provides multinational projects with more informative agenda analysis, which may be used as a springboard for more abstract considerations. Only when policy scholars build on the work of these previous scholars will these inspiring, but currently disjointed, research agendas coalesce into a comprehensive understanding of the agenda setting process around the world
The agenda setting subfield has grown increasingly complex as scholars attempt to understand its role within the larger policy process. We have examined three areas that contribute to that complexity by analyzing literature that expands agenda-setting studies beyond U.S. national institutions and looks at the policy dynamics that exist in alternate systems. One area has shown that by developing a more sophisticated understanding of the role of the media, we can better integrate the media into models of the policy process. Many scholars acknowledge a role for the media in the agenda setting process, but fail to further delineate that role. That stronger understanding of media is a key necessity for better analyses, and recent scholarship has taken the field in exactly that direction.
A great deal of work has also focused on policymaking by elites within specific policy systems at the local, state, and international level. Basic principles of the agenda setting process are present in every political system and further study, both domestically and comparatively, is building an understanding of how those processes are filtered through institutional mechanisms. The roles of information processing and attention are ever present, but how they operate is a key component that differentiates political systems.
The media, federal, and comparative relationships within the policy process, are merely three avenues within an ever-expanding network for agenda setting studies. We urge researchers to engage in continual questioning of assumptions by exploring newer methods and untapped areas of study. One possible avenue for policy scholars is to further develop the methods used to assess agenda setting and measure elite attention. Established methods have gotten us to where we are currently, but in order to go farther, we need to pay additional attention to how we measure attention and the agenda space. Just because we have consistent measures of analysis does not mean that there are not better alternatives. Consistency can breed complacency. Christopher Wlezien has pointed to the problem by leading discussions regarding the measurement issues in the study of issue salience for the public and what reliable measures can be used to compare elite attention (2005; Jennings & Wlezien 2011). The Comparative Policy Agendas Project provides us with one set of tools to do cross-system comparisons, but we ought continue to refine and maintain these data collection processes. Additionally, data mining and agent-based simulations (Thomas 2013) are but two areas that can be employed in the quest to keep the study of agenda setting dynamic.
As we consider new methods of study for elite attention, we must also consider the sources of these measures. Communication between policy actors and those outside the subsystem becomes even more critical within a globalized community. How has the expansion of communications technology, particularly the Internet, changed the policy process? Policy subsystems rely on limited attention and information outside the network (Gais, Peterson, and Walker 1984), but in the digital age, the divide becomes blurred and the agenda formation process is thus altered. As the world is more connected through the Internet, the blogosphere, social media, and unlimited data access, our understanding of the policy process should adapt to reflect these altered relationships.