The Politics of Information: Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America

The Politics of Information: Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America

by Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones

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How does the government decide what’s a problem and what isn’t? And what are the consequences of that process? Like individuals, Congress is subject to the “paradox of search.” If policy makers don’t look for problems, they won’t find those that need to be addressed. But if they carry out a thorough search, they will almost certainly find new problems—and with the definition of each new problem comes the possibility of creating a government program to address it.
With The Politics of Attention, leading policy scholars Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones demonstrated the central role attention plays in how governments prioritize problems. Now, with The Politics of Information, they turn the focus to the problem-detection process itself, showing how the growth or contraction of government is closely related to how it searches for information and how, as an organization, it analyzes its findings. Better search processes that incorporate more diverse viewpoints lead to more intensive policymaking activity. Similarly, limiting search processes leads to declines in policy making. At the same time, the authors find little evidence that the factors usually thought to be responsible for government expansion—partisan control, changes in presidential leadership, and shifts in public opinion—can be systematically related to the patterns they observe.
Drawing on data tracing the course of American public policy since World War II, Baumgartner and Jones once again deepen our understanding of the dynamics of American policy making.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226198262
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/02/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bryan D. Jones is the J. J. “Jake” Pickle Regent’s Chair in Congressional Studies in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. Together, they are the authors of several books, including, most recently, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Information

Problem Definition and the Course of Public Policy in America

By Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19826-2


Search, Information, and Policy Agendas

Good government requires sound mechanisms for detecting problems and prioritizing them for action. But the better the performance of the search mechanisms, the more likely is public policy action on the problems detected. And the more government action, the larger and more intrusive the government. We call this tension the paradox of search.

This is not just a theoretical proposition. We show in this book that in the United States, this tension has contributed to an arc of policy development in which the policy agenda, the arena of serious dialogue for possible government intervention, expanded to a peak, which we can locate definitively as occurring in 1978. Then the policy agenda contracted throughout our period of study, which ended in 2008. We do not claim that search alone caused the arc, but we show correspondences in data we have assembled and coded through the Policy Agendas Project that strongly indicate how central search was in this historical development and how these mechanisms became part of the ideological dialogue in the period.

In this introductory chapter, we explore the paradox, showing that it involves at its heart a tension between allowing full and free participation in the detection and discovery of public problems and orderly government in which policies are carefully implemented through hierarchies. One can have order and control, or one can have diversity and open search processes and "participatory democracy." In theory these could occur in continual balance. This does not, however, work out so well in practice.

Handling Complexity in Problem Definition

In dealing with complex social problems with many underlying dimensions, governments must attempt to understand the issues. To understand a complex issue, governments must gather information about the issue. It is straightforward to seek out expertise on a problem that is well understood and for which known solutions exist. But how does one gather information about a problem one does not completely understand? One way to do this is to break down a large problem into its component parts and attempt to make progress one part at a time. When governments focus their attention on one element of a problem, they often can make progress in alleviating it. Food stamps do indeed allow millions of poor Americans to eat at least somewhat more nutritiously than they would if the program did not exist. But when we create a program to focus on one element (say, nutrition) of a complex and interconnected issue (say, poverty), it is not long before advocates point out that other elements or dimensions of the problem also deserve attention: housing, transportation, job training, tax structures, health care, education, personal responsibility, work ethic, equal opportunity, and family structure are also important parts of the poverty puzzle, to be sure. In an issue as complex as poverty, the more one focuses attention on the myriad dimensions of the issue, the more information one gathers, the more one understands the multidimensional character of the issue, and the more one might be tempted to create a range of public policy programs designed to address different elements of it. Poverty is not unusual with regard to its complexity. Health care or fostering economic growth or protecting national security are equally complex, for example. The more one thinks about how to address a complex social problem, the longer the list of potential ideas that might justify a new government program.

Governments face not only complex individual problems but also multiple problems, and these problems are not prioritized. That means that when they make progress, say, on poverty, some actors might say they are paying insufficient attention to, for example, the environment, health care, national defense, or the space race. There is no simple way to prioritize the diverse problems governments face. So the issue of complexity does not stop with matching solutions with multiple consequences to multifaceted and ill-understood problems. Politics is often about getting government to focus on one topic rather than another. Even if the topics are not directly in conflict with one another, all topics compete for space on the agenda.

Gathering information about complex problems, prioritizing those problems, and understanding the myriad repercussions that current policies may have on different elements of society, the economy, or other sectors require that we organize diversity into the process of gathering information. A greater diversity of information is better in helping to understand extremely complex issues and for balancing diverse priorities: information should come from as many different angles as possible. But implementing solutions and doing so efficiently requires clarity of organizational design and a clear mission. Thus, the goals of understanding the complex world around us are in fundamental conflict with the need to act. The conflict between complexity and control is at the heart of this book, and it explains fundamental tensions at the core of government since its inception.

Judging Government's Performance

Should government be so consumed with defining problems? Not according to many analysts. We can judge government performance through two fundamental lenses. The first concentrates on democratic accountability, and in particular on the correspondence between what government does and what its citizens want. Here the question is the connection between citizen preferences and public policies. A second perspective focuses on the extent to which government solves the problems it faces. These are obviously not the only standards, but they are the most prevalent, both in the political science literature and in general discourse about government.

Both of these standards are quite obviously incomplete. What if citizen preferences are based on faulty or even misguided information? What if such policies have terrible economic, environmental, or social consequences? These and other aspects of the preference satisfaction approach have been thoroughly aired in the political science literature.

Less explored is the standard of problem solving. The key focus is on how governments detect, prioritize, and address a dynamic flow of changing challenges for the system (Jones and Baumgartner 2005b; Adler and Wilkerson 2012). Here the incomplete nature of the standard is also clear. Problems are in part subjective and in part objective, and any policy solution to a problem will have clear distributional effects. Nevertheless, the problem-solving approach has much to commend it. Ranking of problems by citizens, such as in Gallup's long-running query about "the most important problem facing the nation," indicate a great deal of consensus on problems. The approach focuses on questions of how a political system processes information, because information is a requirement of sound problem solving (Jones and Baumgartner 2005b). Most importantly, much of politics is not about matching policies to preferences but rather centers on the definition of problems and the design of policy solutions. And the approach makes clear that citizens can have preferences for what problems should be addressed as well as what policies should be enacted (Jones, Larsen-Price, and Wilkerson 2009).

This study, and our work more generally, is located solidly within the problem-solving perspective. In following this thread, we have increasingly come to see governments as complex adaptive systems (Jones and Baumgartner 2005b). A complex adaptive system is one that interacts dynamically with its environment by processing and responding to information and adjusting to external changes in its environment in ways that are often not proportional to the changes in the environment (in technical terms, nonlinear) and involve whole series of variables changing together such that it is hard to isolate the effect of a single one of them. The problem-solving perspective, which has a long tradition in political science, meshes well with the burgeoning literature on complex systems in other fields of inquiry.

Underlying the problem-solving perspective is an approach to understanding individual behaviors in complex organizations in which participants are seen as boundedly rational actors who are generally goal oriented but are constrained by their biological and psychological inheritances (Jones 2001). They struggle with allocating attention to the most pressing issues, become attached to solutions independently of how much they contribute to goal attainment, and become confused when faced with longer chains of causation. When the boundedly rational individual meets the complexity of modern government, the result is heightened uncertainty about the course of the future. Within this frame, the organizations that they inhabit can facilitate or inhibit the solving of problems.

A major issue in such a perspective is the complexity of modern problems facing government, and the complexity of problems (by which we mean multi-attribute situations with unappealing trade-offs) has been a (maybe the) major key to our studies. The problems facing modern governments are hard, in two senses. They involve unpalatable trade-offs, or they conflict with the values and preferences of participants such that governments must deny the problems or rethink their preferences. This can be difficult for democratically elected politicians if their constituents do not similarly update their preferences in light of emergent problems.

Information is critical for problem solving, and hence how governments recognize, organize, and respond to information is essential to understand public policy, the outputs of government activities. In particular, we have explored the role of information in causing the policy responses of governments to alternate between calm and incremental adjustments to changes in their environments and disjoint and episodic disruptions to the ongoing adjustment process.

In previous research, we examined the effects of the processing of information on government policy actions (Jones and Baumgartner 2005b). There we explored the impact of the ongoing, dynamic flow of information on a system that was conservative, in the sense that it reacted slowly to changing information signals indicating problems in the environment. That is, mostly political systems underreact to information. They do so because of the bounded rationality of political actors and because of the institutional friction built into the decision-making system. But occasionally the flow of information signals cumulated to reach crisis stage (a process we termed "error accumulation") and major policy punctuations occurred. Sometimes the policy punctuation was preceded by major electoral shifts; sometimes not.

In this book, we turn to the front end of the information processing in those complex adaptive systems we call governments. We want to understand what organizational mechanisms are involved in the detection of signals and the definition of problems that lead to policy action. We focus on the search mechanisms that governments employ, either consciously or unconsciously, to detect problems, prioritize them among competing issues, and design solutions for those problems.

The term "search" implies active recognition that problems may exist and that governments have established mechanisms for doing this. But in some cases search can be a side consequence of arrangements established to further other goals, in particular the ambitions of office-seeking politicians. We show in detail how the search mechanisms within congressional committees developed both as a conscious information-processing system within congress and as a consequence of changes in the electoral coalitions pushing for reform during the early 1970s.

Three Questions

We organize our exploration of search and information gathering in government by positing three key questions. Taken together, these three questions constitute what we call the paradox of search.

Is search necessary for good government?

This seems obvious. If government ignores problems that emerge from its environment, it cannot act adaptively to address those problems. But if we return to the two standards for judging government above, it is not. In the preference satisfaction approach, there is no role for search, except for the search that politicians engage in to discover the preferences of their citizens for policies (Gilligan and Krehbiel 1989, 1990). It is not difficult to reconcile search with preference satisfaction by treating it as just another policy and by pointing out that policies may be endorsed or refuted by electorates after they are put in place. But that treats an essential component of policy making as an afterthought. Here, we want to bring search up for explicit scrutiny and give it a prominent place in the analysis of democratic decision making.

Are order, control, and hierarchy the enemies of search?

There is a solid literature based on small group observations and experiments that indicate more diversity leads to better decisions (Page 2008). Indeed, Fishkin's (1991, 2011) notion of deliberative democracy builds in diversity of perspectives and a venue for discussion of those perspectives. Elinor Ostrom (2005) has shown in the lab and in the field that diverse perspectives can be reconciled to solve problems. But in large systems these orderly processes tend to fail, and the analysis breaks down here as well. Ostrom and others point out that many decisions can be accomplished within smaller units, which allows both for more deliberation and more homogenous preferences. But if there must be decisions at the larger and more diverse collective, then the analysis is less relevant.

Yet, surely decisions based on diversity and deliberation are generally better than those based on top-down hierarchy, at least over many issues and longer time spans. Hierarchies at some point must stifle search to solve the "analysis paralysis" (too much analysis leads to decision paralysis) problem. Or, in another language, we expect better decisions on average in diverse systems, even large-scale ones, if there are ways to reconcile these diverse preferences and perspectives.

But what if a class of citizens has more information and expertise than others? Should its perspectives be given more weight? If so, then are not order and hierarchy better for assessing and defining problems? This is an age-old question that we cannot answer, but we can make progress by dividing search processes into two types, which are appropriate in different situations. In many, if not most, cases, these situations can be clearly defined. In problem definition and prioritization, diversity is almost always desirable. In solution search, expertise is almost always the preferred way.

Is search the enemy of good government?

This question is the polar opposite of the first. But there are three factors that would suggest that in some circumstances search can undermine elements of sound government.

First, government can overinvest in the search process, just as it can overinvest in any policy activity (Jones, Thomas, and Wolfe 2013). Sometimes the trade-offs between fostering search and good government are crystal clear. As we write, the United States is in a major discussion over the role of the National Security Agency's (NSA) data mining techniques used to detect potential terrorist threats. Debates center on the intrusiveness onto the personal liberties and privacies of U.S. citizens versus the threats to collective safety. The more intensive and comprehensive the search by government, the more intrusive are its effects on citizens. Less debated, but probably just as important, is the enormous expense of NSA's search techniques, a debate that is taking place almost without regard to weighing the monetary cost of the search versus the expected value of threat detection.

Second, search implies that if a problem is found, the probability of government action will increase. It can be hard to stop some sort of policy proposals from gaining traction in many circumstances, especially if the problem can be shown to be severe and directly relevant to citizens' lives. The extensive and intensive activities of NSA are instructive. We explore this issue in detail in this book, and show how the linkage of problem to solution, and therefore of problem-search to subsequent government action, helps us understand the development and structure of the U.S. government throughout the postwar period.

The tight link between finding and acting also has implications for governance. For every problem, there is generally a proposed solution, and more often than not that solution involves more government. More programs imply more expenses, more taxes, and more intrusive government. One approach is simply to refuse to engage the search process. But that leads to festering problems that can grow to large-scale crises. The search process invariably is linked to the disjoint course of policy making. Lack of search will lead to fewer problems being found until a crisis demands action in an "error accumulation" process (Jones and Baumgartner 2005a, 2005b). Search leads to finding problems, and the better the search process, the more problems will be found. The more problems found, the more government policies will be put in place to address them. This can result in more government, which in turn may lead to countermobilization by those who worry about too much government regulation (and often their first target is information-gathering efforts). We take no position here on how much government is the "right" amount. But we do show here that the consequences of increasing search processes is associated with more extensive government activities and that these patterns tend to spill over into other policy areas in a self-reinforcing process. And limiting search leads to a downward spiral of lower government activity.


Excerpted from The Politics of Information by Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part I “Seek and Ye Shall Find”

1 Search, Information, and Policy Agendas
2 Organizing for Expertise or Organizing for Complexity?
3 Information, Search, and Government

Part II Information and the Growth of Government

4 Th e Rise and Decline of Institutional Information Processing in the Executive and Legislative Branches
5 From Clarity to Complexity in Congress
6 The Search for Information and the Great New-Issue Expansion
7 The Thickening and Broadening of Government
8 Rounding Up the Usual Political Suspects

Part III The Implications of Information in Government

9 Organizing Information and the Transformation of U.S. Policy Making
10 Organizing Complexity


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