Policy Streams Model
Kingdon (1995) proposed a “policy streams” model to reflect the issue of “policy looking for a problem.” He described three streams of policy activity: the problem stream, the policy stream and the political stream. The problem stream describes the complexities in getting policymakers to focus on one problem out of many facing constituents. For example, early in the process of developing the language for health reform legislation, policymakers engaged in a long process to define exactly which problems associated with our health care system should be included in a legislative package. Part of the challenge was the lack of agreement about which problems were the most urgent and which required legislation. Some felt that cost was the biggest problem, others wanted to limit health reform to tort reform, and others wanted to improve access. Until the problem is adequately defined, an appropriate policy solution cannot be effective.
The second stream is the policy stream. This describes policy goals and ideas of those in policy subsystems, such as researchers, congressional committee members and staff, agency officials, and interest groups. Ideas in the policy stream float around policy circles in search of problems. The third stream, the political stream, describes factors in the political environment that influence the policy agenda, such as an economic recession, special interest media, or pivotal political power shifts.
Kingdon sees these streams as moving constantly and waiting for a “window of opportunity” to open through “couplings” of any two streams (particularly in the political stream), creating new opportunities for policy change. However, such opportunities are time-limited: if change does not occur while the window is open, the problems and options return to the soup and continue floating. For example, while health reform was a high priority for the newly elected President Obama, the economic crisis and recession became a powerful political “stream” bringing to bear a major debate about the short-term costs of health care reform as opposed to a discussion about long-term savings.