Have policy process scholars embraced causal mechanisms? A review of five popular frameworks

AuthorEvert Lindquist,Jeroen van der Heijden,Johanna Kuhlmann,Adam Wellstead
Publication Date01 Apr 2021
SubjectSpecial Issue Articles
Special Issue: Mechanisms
Have policy process
scholars embraced causal
mechanisms? A review of
five popular frameworks
Jeroen van der Heijden
School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National
University, Canberra, Australia
Johanna Kuhlmann
University of Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany
Evert Lindquist
School of Public Administration, University of Victoria, Victoria,
BC, Canada
Adam Wellstead
College of Science and Arts, Michigan Technological University,
Houghton, MI, USA
Over 30 years, several key frameworks and theories of the policy process have emerged
which have guided a burgeoning empirical literature. A more recent development has
been a growing interest in the application of a ‘causal mechanism’ perspective to policy
studies. This article reviews selected theories of the policy process (Multiple Streams
Approach, Advocacy Coalition Framework, Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, Narrative
Framework Theory, and Institutional Analysis and Development Framework) and
reports on an exploratory meta-analysis and synthesis to gauge the take-up of causal-
mechanistic approaches. The findings suggest that there has been limited application of
causal mechanisms and calls for more theoretical and empirical work on that aspect.
Given the overlapping frameworks exploring different aspects of the policy process,
further research informed by causal-mechanism approaches points to a new generation
of inquiry across these and other policy process theoretical frameworks.
Public Policy and Administration
2021, Vol. 36(2) 163–186
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076718814894
Corresponding author:
Jeroen van der Heijden, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University,
Canberra, Australia.
Email: jeroen.vanderheijden@vuw.ac.nz
Advocacy coalition framework, causal mechanisms, institutional analysis and develop-
ment, multiple streams approach, narrative policy framework, punctuated equilibrium
theory, theories of the policy process
Over the last three decades, great strides have been made in developing theoretical
frameworks which capture the complex, dynamic, nuanced, inertial and punctuated
change features of policy-making (Birkland, 2015; Howlett et al., 2009; Weible and
Sabatier, 2017). These allow for capturing key features of policy-making and
broader institutional contexts, and for a better understanding of how and the
extent to which policy analysis and research inform policy development, deci-
sion-making, and implementation and whether policy succeeds. These frameworks
are used as points of departure for policy studies, providing the concepts, and
propositions scholars and many practitioners use to analyze and appraise facets
of policy-making.
While these frameworks have received much praise and are widely applied, there
have been increasing calls for identifying causal mechanisms in policy-process
theory (John, 2003; Kay and Baker, 2015; Nowlin, 2011; Steinberg, 2007; Yee,
1996). Put simply, ‘causal drivers’ are assumed to lie at the heart of the scientif‌ic
assumptions underlying these theories (Weible, 2017), yet causation is often
claimed or implied, and at best supported by shallow explanations (see also
Falleti and Lynch, 2008; Nowlin, 2011; Sartori, 1970). A focus on causal mechan-
isms may help to ‘detail the cogs and wheels [and better understand] the causal
process through which the outcome to be explained was brought about’ (Hedstro
and Ylikoski, 2010: 49). Thinking in terms of causal mechanisms forces researchers
to address ‘recurrent processes linking specif‌ic initial conditions and a specif‌ic out-
come’ and ‘how, by what intermediate steps, a certain outcome follows from a set of
initial conditions’ (Mayntz, 2004: 241). Identifying mechanisms that link causes
and outcomes in this manner is crucial for developing more f‌ine-grained explan-
ations of policy change (Astbury and Leeuw, 2010). In this manner, the analysis of
causal mechanisms can further strengthen studies of policy analysis by providing a
way of making causal inferences (Goertz and Mahoney, 2012), or may help pro-
viding building blocks for middle-range theories to explain policy change in less
generic and more observation-driven terms than the earlier mentioned frameworks
(Merton, 1957). Such middle-range theories may, for example, hold for a specif‌ic
set of countries or policy areas, but not all.
While not all causation is mechanistic, a more detailed understanding of
policy-making would involve specifying the cause-and-ef‌fect relationships, or ‘mech-
anisms’ , between dif‌ferent factors of the frameworks, such as policy-makers’ atten-
tion to policy problems and their receptivity to policy solutions. Identifying causal
mechanisms helps us to explain better how and why some decisions came about and
164 Public Policy and Administration 36(2)

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