Kingdon's 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. These three conditions must stream through the open policy window at the same time (also referred to as the Garbage Can Model because the three streams must make their way through a minefield of debris). The problem must come to the attention of the policymaker, it must have a menu of viable policy solution options, and it must occur in the right political circumstances.

The problem stream describes the complexities in focusing policymakers on one specific problem out of many. 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 the U.S health care system should be included in a legislative package (addressed by the government vs. private markets). Driving the problem stream are values, so access could be framed as a free market versus social justice issue. Values tend to have a stronger emotional component attached to them so that part of the challenge is the lack of agreement about which problems are the most urgent and require legislation. Some believe that cost is the biggest problem, others want to limit health reform to tort reform, and some want to improve access or quality. Until the problem is adequately defined, appropriate policy solutions cannot be identified.

The policy stream describes policy goals and the ideas of those in policy subsystems, such as researchers, congressional committee members and staff, agency officials, and interest groups. Ideas in the policy stream disseminate through policy circles in search of problems. The third stream, the political 67stream, describes factors in the political environment that influence the policy agenda, such as an economic recession, special interest media, or pivotal political power shifts.

The political circumstances that push problems to the top of the policy agenda need a high degree of public importance and a low degree of stakeholder conflict around the proposed solutions. A great deal of stakeholder conflict weakens the possibility that the policy window will open. If these three conditions occur at the same time, a policy window opens and progress can be made on the issue. Kingdon (1995) sees these streams as moving constantly and waiting for a window of opportunity to open through couplings of any two streams (particularly 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 will not be addressed.

For example, although health reform was a high priority for newly elected President Obama in 2009, the economic crisis and recession became a powerful political stream bringing to bear a major debate about how escalating health care costs were making the United States less competitive in the global marketplace. The movement of U.S. jobs overseas and the recession were linked to out-of-control health care costs and the need to reform health care, thus, a policy window was opened.