Advocacy Coalitions, Power and Policy Change: ‘Powering’ and ‘Puzzling’

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what drew me to the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) about a decade ago. Part of it was frustration with the policy process theories I had used to that point. Part of it was the concept of advocacy coalitions, which – intuitively – seemed ubiquitous and important in policy-making. In truth, though, my interest in advocacy coalitions has always been instrumental – a platform on which to build a general understanding of how and why policies change. What drew me most to the ACF was its implicit incorporation of both the “puzzling” and “powering” dimensions of policy-making, to borrow Heclo’s (1974) terms.

In my recent Policy & Politics article, I reflect on the fact that reconciling both the puzzling and powering dimensions of policy-making in a single theory is no easy task, and ACF scholars still work on this today. The duality of puzzling and powering is long-evident in the ACF, even in its early versions. One of Sabatier’s (1988, p. 134) stated intentions in the ACF was to give greater emphasis to policy-oriented learning and, hence, the puzzling dimension of policy-making. But he did so without ignoring the obvious importance of the powering dimension, even if this dimension has received less attention from ACF scholars.

Elements of the powering dimension can be found in several aspects of the framework and have a prominent place in the ACF explanation of policy change. Sabatier (1988, p. 148) argued that a jurisdiction’s policy will not significantly change as long as the coalition advocating the status quo remained “in power” in that jurisdiction. This hypothesis, in particular, captured my imagination, probably because it hinted at an important tipping point in policy development, the point at which advocates of the status quo lose the power to protect it.

Borrowing from the work of Tsebelis (2002) and others, my article argues that this tipping point can be more precisely understood in terms of the control that advocacy coalitions exert over veto players. When the coalition advocating the status quo controls a veto player, procedural avenues for effecting major policy change are effectively blocked. When the coalition advocating the status quo don’t have control of a veto player, these procedural avenues open, making major policy change possible.

Through these findings, my article aims to further refine the powering dimension of the ACF explanation of policy change and to assist others in clarifying this dimension. After all, only those theories that recognise and incorporate both the puzzling and powering dimensions can credibly claim any general understanding of policy-making.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Heinmiller, B. T. (2023). Advocacy coalitions, power and policy change, Policy & Politics51(1), 28-46

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Osei-Kojo, A. (2023). Analysing the stability of advocacy coalitions and policy frames in Ghana’s oil and gas governance, Policy & Politics

Sewerin, S., Cashore, B., & Howlett, M. (2022). New pathways to paradigm change in public policy: combining insights from policy design, mix and feedback, Policy & Politics50(3), 442-459.

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