Policy & Politics: Why do windows of opportunity close?

Quite apart from its practical importance, policy is an endlessly fascinating subject of study. A core theme in the analysis of policy is stability and change. Why do we witness extended periods of stability followed by episodes of change or periods of rapid change? In his 1984 book Agendas, alternatives and public policies, John Kingdon proposed a model based upon multiple streams. The alignment of the problem, policy and politics streams opens a window of opportunity for change. This model has been widely applied, including recently to US health care reform by Kingdon himself in the 2010 revised edition of his book (Kingdon, J.W. (2010) Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Updated Edition, with an Epilogue on Health Care), Longman).

An illuminating application of the model is offered by Annesley, Gains and Rummery in their recent paper analysing New Labour’s legacy on engendering politics and policy. The election of New Labour in 1997 appeared to open a window of opportunity for significant progress in the engendering of both politics and policy – and the authors are careful to maintain the distinction between the two. For reasons of both electoral calculation and values the New Labour government recognised gender as a significant policy issue. Annesley et al argue that New Labour’s attempts to engender politics could claim significant success. However, they examine two specific policy areas – change to leave for new parents and action to close the gender pay gap – and argue that the achievements in engendering policy were considerably more limited. They identify three broad reasons why policy change was modest, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap. All three speak to issues of great interest in the contemporary analysis of policy more generally. The first reason is the way the policy problem was framed: the focus was narrowed to the issue of women’s labour market participation and poverty, rather than the broader gender division of paid and unpaid labour. The second reason was the extent and speed with which the institutions of governance adapted to a new agenda. Effectively they couldn’t keep up. The third reason is the extent to which it is possible to pursue policies that run against the presumptions of broader (neo)liberal and pro-business economic policy. And the move to recession in 2008 dissipated what limited momentum there was behind the push to level upward on pay or introduce more flexible maternity and paternity leave: economic imperatives – and reducing the burden on business – take precedence.

The concept of the window of opportunity has given good service in the analysis of policy change. This case study of New Labour’s attempts to engender politics and policy provides a valuable additional dimension to our understanding of precisely how propitious the circumstances need to be before significant change can occur.

Annesley, C., Gains, F. and Rummery, K. (2010) Engendering politics and policy: the legacy of New Labour, Policy & Politics, vol 38, no 3, 389-406.

Alex Marsh, Management Board, Policy & Politics

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