How people make policy change happen

As we start to move beyond the elections, it’s worth exploring how “the three streams model” can help activists become more effective in working for long-term, systemic change.

By Rick Wilson


Although it’s hard not to think about such things right now, it’s not all about elections. Those of us who want to make the world more just also need to think about and advocate for specific policies to move things in that direction in real time at the national, state, and local level when opportunities arise.

I’d like to share a simple nonideological model for thinking about how policy change happens—or doesn’t. The model was developed by political scientist John Kingdon’s 1984 book “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies.”

I’d been doing policy work for years before a friend mentioned the book. I checked it out and had to admit that, yeah, this is pretty much how it happens. I’m going to share a ridiculously simplified version.

First, let me state the obvious, policy change doesn’t happen just because it’s rational, because it’s the right thing to do, and/or it would help thousands of people. It happens when certain things come together.

In Kingdon’s model, a window for effecting change opens when three “streams” come together: the policy, problem, and political stream. 

The policy stream

The policy stream consists of ideas that trickle up from the “primeval soup” of advocacy groups, “policy entrepreneurs” (more popularly known as wonks), attorneys, staffers, and such. Ideally, policy ideas should be specific and well thought out, which usually means getting in the weeds.

For example, “health care for all” isn’t a policy, although I’m all for it. It’s a goal that could be achieved by several different policies, such as a national system on the British model, single payer as in Canada, or a hybrid. The same is true of calls to abolish this or that institution. I’m down, but actually moving in that direction would require enacting or repealing several specific policies.

However, even the best idea won’t go anywhere unless somebody—more like a lot of somebodies—care about it.

The problem stream

This is where the problem stream comes in. Some of the most important social change work consists of getting people to think of the issues we care about as problems that can and must be solved. Kingdon distinguishes between problems and conditions: 

“There is a difference between a condition and a problem. We put up with all manner of conditions every day: bad weather, unavoidable and untreatable illnesses, pestilence, poverty, fanaticism. ... Conditions become defined as problems when we come to believe that we should do something about them.”

It can take weeks, months, years, decades, or centuries to get people to think of things as problems that must be solved rather than unavoidable conditions. A great example is the battered women’s movement. When I was a child, comedians on television actually joked about domestic violence; that doesn’t happen anymore because of years of public education and advocacy—which led to major policy changes.

Given the extremely divided state of U.S. public opinion, clearly much work needs to happen here in terms of coalition building, communications, popular education, and messaging—which means reaching out beyond bubbles and comfort zones.

An example:

For a longer view, think that for millennia many people believed that systems of forced labor such as slavery or serfdom were inevitable conditions of civilization rather than problems that needed to be solved and ended. A classic example of people who made progress in getting an issue into the problem stream are the Garrisonian abolitionists. 

They weren’t policy wonks: Immediate abolition of slavery based on moral suasion wasn’t a doable policy. They weren’t revolutionaries like John Brown and his biracial band, who pushed the issue past the breaking point with their raid in what is now my home state of West Virginia. They weren’t practical political actors, like Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln. Nor were they the pure force of the Union army or the thousands of slaves who flocked to Union lines in what W.E.B. DuBois aptly called “a general strike.” 

Still, they got the anti-slavery issue out there for decades, without which some of the other work may not have happened. As Garrison summarized this approach, "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. … I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD."

The political stream

Once an issue is in the problem stream, it’s possible to link policy issues as solutions, which leads us to the foulest and most polluted stream: the political.

Lots of things influence and shape the political stream. The most obvious is on all our minds lately: election results. But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. The death or retirement of a key politician or Supreme Court Justice, a change of leadership, or even a quarrel between influential politicians can directly impact this stream.

The political stream can also be influenced—and opened or closed—based on social movements, which unfortunately can’t be manufactured at will; galvanizing events, such as natural or social disasters; or changes in the public mood. With any of these changes, what might have been possible becomes impossible and vice versa. And the situation changes all the time. 

We can’t always—or usually—anticipate or control such changes. But we can prepare for them and move when openings occur.

Case studies

Maybe some examples could help. Let’s start with health care, a key concern of mine these days. The first “mainstream” politician in the U.S. who advocated for something like national health care was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, when he ran as an independent Progressive Republican.

He lost. In the 1930s and '40s, his distant cousin Franklin and successor, Harry Truman, advocated for it but were blocked by racist Southern politicians and powerful lobby groups. The political stream was blocked.

For a while the problem stream was blocked. Health care wasn’t terribly expensive. Many expensive procedures hadn’t been developed. And many Americans could access health care through their employers.

That changed. More and more jobs provided no health benefits. By the late 2000s, around 50 million Americans, many of them working, had no health care. And their lack of coverage drove up costs for everyone.

Thanks to the efforts of advocates and experiences of impacted people, this became a problem.

In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, Democrats, for good or ill, controlled the presidency, the House of Representatives and a veto-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. The window for reform was open. For a few weeks.

In 2009, the majorities of both houses of Congress worked on a health reform plan, eventually coming up with a hybrid version that included expanding Medicaid for low income working families, establishing a mandate for some individuals and employers to provide health care, and creating a market or exchange where people could purchase more or less subsidized health care.

Neither version was perfect, but with the loss of the supermajority, the lesser version became the only option. No further improvements could be made immediately. Then it was time for defense. That’s where we are now.

Or consider the Iraq war. In the 1990s, neo-conservative activists proposed the policy of invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime to supposedly bring peace and stability to the Middle East (and we all know how that worked out). They gained no traction until the political and problem streams changed with the 2000 election and the 9/11 attacks. Then they linked their policy (war) to a problem (fear of terrorism) in a changed political stream (new president). 

A negative example

Here’s a case, one of many for me, of one that got away. Around the same time as passage of the ACA, a window opened for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have been a true game changer in terms of rebuilding a middle class. It would have made it easier for workers to join unions, which could in turn negotiate for better wages, benefits, and conditions while also educating workers about policy issues.

The U.S. House passed EFCA around 2007. With the supermajority in 2009, a window was open in the Senate to make it the law of the land. That didn’t happen. People dithered. The supermajority was lost. The window closed.

When that happens, one can waste time, energy, and often money on beating one’s metaphorical head against a wall—or, without giving up hope, focus on things that could help the situation right now.

There are lots of negative examples like this one. Windows for major policy change can be opened or closed, but the latter is the most frequent option. Still, by tracking changes, we have a chance to distinguish between the possible and impossible.

So what does this all mean?

I’m convinced the model can help us figure where we are and where we need to go in our pursuit of more human and liberating policies. The stream metaphor can point the way.

First, are we really clear about the specific (and probably imperfect) policy we want? Is it doable and specific about implementation?

Second, does anyone who can help make it happen care? If not, that signifies more work that must be done in the short and long term.

Third, what needs to happen politically to make this happen? How can we engage and influence it, even if that involves waiting for opportunities? 

Fourth, what do we do if it’s not going to happen? (Solution: without abandoning one’s goals, move on to the next thing and deal with the threats and/or opportunities that emerge, while circling back when things change.)

Working it backwards

Then there’s the other side of the coin. This model can also be useful in trying to “kill” bad policy ideas that might roll down. Specifically, we can attempt to show that the proposed policy idea wouldn’t solve the problem suggested and could indeed make things worse, as is often the case. And we could offer realistic alternatives.

We could also argue that the issue at hand isn’t the real problem or could make the problem worse. Or we could direct our attention to figuring out what we can do to influence or close the political stream or at least redirect it a bit.

This overall approach is more a compass than a road map. But then, as many before us have tried to say, the map is not the territory.

But it can help us move in the directions we want to go.