Advocacy Coalition Networks Essay

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Advocacy coalition networks, as conceptualized by Paul A. Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith (1993), consist of groups of people who share a common belief system and participate in nontrivial, coordinated activities to transform their beliefs into public policy. Similar to iron triangles or policy whirlpools, advocacy coalition networks include organized interest groups, executive agencies, and members of relevant legislative committees. However, unlike the traditional conceptions of coalition groups, advocacy coalition networks recognize that many more participants are active in seeking to influence public policy, including members of the media, academic researchers, policy analysts, and comparable political actors at multiple levels of government. Advocacy coalition networks also differ from broader issue networks in that the participants of the coalition are united around shared core and secondary policy beliefs rather than a more encompassing focus on a particular policy area.

Advocacy coalition networks operate in wider policy subsystems that include all actors who are involved in a particular policy area. This includes active participants in advocacy coalitions, as well as potential latent actors who may be mobilized in the future. In addition to coalition participants, the policy subsystem may include neutral actors who become involved through technical expertise and knowledge, such as bureaucrats and academics. Policy subsystems usually include several (typically two to four) advocacy coalition networks that compete to influence policy makers, but some quiescent subsystems may only have a single coalition. Because coalitions are united by shared belief systems, they should be relatively stable over time, especially when the policy debate centers on core beliefs and values.

In 2002, Miles Burnett and Charles Davis provided a ready example from their analysis of the policy subsystem of U.S. national forest policy from 1960 to 1995.They identified three active coalitions. The first coalition was a commodity production coalition consisting of lumber firms, mill workers, some administrators in the U.S. Forest Service, local government officials, and members of Congress from districts economically affected by timber policy. The second coalition, pursuing conservation and environmental protection, consisted of environmental groups, water quality agencies, state and local fish and game departments, some U.S. Forest Service employees, and members of Congress who support conservation policies. The final coalition, formed around the principles of multiple use and sustained yield, includes forestry associations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and some U.S. Forest Service employees. Each coalition utilized varying strategies, from venue shopping to using policy information to attract media attention, all aimed at influencing policy outcomes affecting national forests.

Advocacy Coalition Networks In The Policy Process

Advocacy coalition networks play a central role in Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith’s framework of the policy process, the advocacy coalition framework (ACF). The ACF was developed as an alternative to the traditional stages model, which was seen as too simplistic and linear to be an accurate description of the policy process, and too limited in its utility to show causal mechanisms and generate testable hypotheses. The ACF focuses on the roles of information and belief systems and tracks policy change advocacy coalition networks within policy subsystems over long periods (usually a decade or more).

Under the ACF, minor or secondary aspects of policy can change as coalitions compete within a policy subsystem to influence decisions of sovereign policy makers. Importantly, advocacy coalition networks engage in policy-oriented learning, processing both technical policy information and political feedback, to update their strategies as well as secondary aspects of their belief systems. Incremental change can result from this type of policy-oriented learning. Major, nonincremental policy changes are unlikely without significant shifts in factors external to the subsystem, like socioeconomic conditions, public attitudes, governing coalitions, and constitutional structures. Still, significant external shocks do not necessitate major policy change. Rather, minority or nondominant coalitions must skillfully use these external perturbations to gain an advantage in the subsystem that would allow them to institute core policy changes that would not have been possible under the previously dominant coalition.

Applications And Critiques Of The Advocacy Coalition Framework

Developed around environmental politics in the United States, most studies using the ACF have addressed policy subsystems such as auto pollution control, public lands policy, and water policy. However, it also has been applied successfully to other policy areas, including national security, education, and drug policy. Though it was developed with the U.S. political system in mind, it has been used to analyze policy change in international settings as well, including roads policy in Britain, water quality policy in the Netherlands, and gender discrimination policy in Australia.

Through these varied applications, several critiques and modifications to the original framework have been offered. A 1996 study of the education policy by Michael Mintrom and Sandra Vergari noted the difficulty in predicting when major policy change might occur because external shocks were, themselves, not a sufficient cause. Several studies have suggested also that more attention be paid to issues of collective action because the primary focus of the framework centers on coalitions of varied political actors. Several applications of the ACF have found less stable coalitions than the framework originally hypothesized, leading to a distinction between nascent and mature policy subsystems. In newly formed subsystems, coalitions may be much more fluid as the stakes of the policy area may be initially unclear. As more information is generated, coalitions should become more stable and entrenched.

Finally, although advocacy coalition networks have been conceptualized under the auspices of the ACF, similar concepts of coalitions and issue networks have been used also in other frameworks of the policy process. In the multiple streams framework of agenda setting, John Kingdon (1984) noted that “policy communities” made up of bureaucrats, congressional staffers, think-tank researchers, and academics centered around a single policy area play a crucial role in generating policy solutions and alternatives. Policy entrepreneurs, meanwhile, actively pursue policy change by matching these solutions to emerging problems and political conditions. In Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones’s (1993) punctuated equilibrium framework, groups of interests compete to exert influence in a policy subsystem. These interests actively seek to structure the decision-making authority to give themselves a policy monopoly or dominant control that leads to incremental policy change. Major policy change results from minority interests successfully altering the policy image to give themselves control over the policy subsystem. Concepts similar to advocacy coalition networks are even prominent in policy innovation and diffusion models, where issue networks and advocacy groups play a strong role in diffusing new ideas from one governmental entity to another.


  1. Baumgartner, Frank R., and Bryan D. Jones. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  2. Burnett, Miles, and Charles Davis. “Getting Out the Cut: Politics and National Forest Timber Harvests, 1960–1995.” Administration and Society 34, no. 2 (2002): 202–228.
  3. Heclo, Hugh. “Issue Networks and the Executive Establishment.” In The New American Political System, edited by Anthony King, 87–124.Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1978.
  4. Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
  5. Mintrom, Michael, and Sandra Vergari. “Advocacy Coalitions, Policy Entrepreneurs, and Policy Change.” Policy Studies Journal 24, no. 3 (1996): 126–148.
  6. Sabatier, Paul A., and Hank Jenkins-Smith. Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach. Boulder, Colo.:Westview, 1993.
  7. Schlager, Edella, and William Blomquist. “A Comparison of Three Emerging Theories of the Policy Process.” Political Research Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1996): 651–672.

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