Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs

Paul Cairney Paul Cairney

The ‘multiple streams approach’ (MSA) is one of policy scholarship’s biggest successes. Kingdon’s original is one the highest cited books in policy studies, and there is a thriving programme of empirical application and theoretical refinement.

Yet, I argue that its success is built on shaky foundations because its alleged strength – its flexible metaphor of streams and windows of opportunity – is actually its weakness. Most scholars describe MSA superficially, fail to articulate the meaning of its metaphor, do not engage with state of the art developments, and struggle to apply its concepts systematically to empirical research. These limitations create an acute scientific problem: most scholars apply MSA without connecting it to a coherent research agenda.

In my recent article in Policy & Politics, I seek to solve this problem in three ways.

  1. Turning lessons from individual studies and systematic and qualitative reviews of the literature into a coherent MSA narrative.
  2. Applying this narrative to contemporary discussions of the ‘politics of evidence based policymaking’ to show how to make the MSA story as memorable, widely understood, and correctly applied as possible. The blog in this hyperlink shows how to respond to the absence of ‘rational’ and ‘evidence based’ policymaking through a policy cycle with linear stages.
  3. Focusing primarily on ‘policy entrepreneurs’ as the heroes of the MSA story. Entrepreneurs are the key actors who invest their time wisely for future reward, and possess skills that help them adapt particularly well to policymaking environments. They are the agents for policy change who possess the knowledge, power, tenacity, and luck to be able to exploit key opportunities. They draw on the following three strategies.

1. Don’t focus on bombarding policymakers with evidence.

Scientists focus on making more evidence to reduce uncertainty, but put people off with too much information. Entrepreneurs tell a good story, grab the audience’s interest, and the audience demands information.


2. By the time people pay attention to a problem it’s too late to produce a solution.

So, you produce your solution then chase problems.


3. When your environment changes, your strategy changes.

Kingdon uses the metaphor of a surfer waiting for the big wave, but he is describing the US federal level in which there are many actors and separate authoritative venues. In the smaller subnational level, on a low attention and low budget issue, entrepreneurs can be a bit more like Poseidon moving the ‘streams’. In the US federal level, you need to ‘soften’ up solutions over a long time to generate support. In subnational or other countries, you have more opportunity to import and adapt ready-made solutions.


The three strategies relate to one simple piece of advice – timing and luck matters when making a policy case – but policy entrepreneurs know how to influence timing and help create their own luck.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Cairney, Paul, Three habits of successful policy entrepreneursPolicy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15230056771696

View the special issue full table of contents here. The whole issue is free to access until 31 May.

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