How Citizen Activists Can Make Shift Happen. A New Way of Mapping Policy Dynamics

Policy change typically unfolds according to two key determinants: 1. how contested ideas are framed, and, 2. the discursive competence of respective actors (see below for a brief discussion of this term). 

In a stable policy context, there is enough overlap between competing frames for incremental policy change to occur.  Incremental policy change involves “non-innovative changes at the margin of existing policies utilizing existing policy processes, institutions and regimes” (Howlett, 2001:313). 

In extremely difficult policy disputes, such as those profiled in the case studies, mutually exclusive principles and values can appear irreconcilable.  Such conflicts can challenge the political culture, institutions, and governance capacity of a system to the point of impasse.

In such cases, progress becomes dependent upon an adequate reframing of the problems and solutions and the emergence of a new dominant policy frame or paradigm.  As demonstrated by the case studies, paradigmatic policy change involves new policies which represent a sharp break from the past in terms of how policies were developed, overall policy goals, the dominant problem-solution frame, and the policy instruments chosen (Howlett & Ramesh, 1995:193). 

How can activists influence political agendas?

Change agents of all stripes are coming to realize that modern political agendas are tied less to formal elected office and more to matters of political entrepreneurship and discursive competence.  This refers to the ability of actors to employ discourse for political gain; with authority arising more from the ability to frame and present information effectively than from professional or bureaucratic credentials. 

Policy discourse is one key to understanding how relatively minor actors can influence real change.  This term refers “to the interactions of individuals, interest groups, social movements, and institutions through which problematic situations are converted to policy problems, agendas are set, decisions are made, and actions are taken” (Rein & Schön, 1993:145). 

To better understand the dynamics of policy change, it is imperative to distinguish between levels of policy discourse and to recognize differences between:

  1. conflicts involving higher-level principles and deeply held core values, and,
  2. those involving technical, causal arguments. 

Goldstein and Keohane (1993:11) make the distinction between “ideas that develop or justify value commitments” (principled ideas) and those that “simply provide guidance as to how to achieve preferred objectives” (causal ideas). 

For example, consider the discourse that might revolve around timber harvesting in a typical resource management conflict.  At the causal level the discussions and negotiations would focus on technical aspects such as the appropriate size of cut-blocks (e.g., 5 ha vs. 10 ha) or the most suitable routes and standards for access roads. 

At the level of principles and values, however, the discourse would enter into more fundamental considerations; for example, what values and principles govern acceptable use for an area given specific climatic, ecological, and biophysical circumstances?  Is resource extraction appropriate for a particular area?  If so, who should benefit and to what degree?  Discourse at the technical-causal level most often remains silent on such key issues because the status quo is implicit and remains unquestioned.

This distinction between levels of discourse offers a key entry point for activists seeking to understand the dynamics of a policy sphere they are attempting to impact. 

If a particular social/environmental movement is to succeed, it becomes imperative that activists become versed in these distinctions and seek to gain discursive competence.

Potential power of collaborative solutions

Collaboration is fundamentally about two or more parties working together to “affect the future of an issue of shared interests” (Daniels & Walker, 2001:57). 

The distinctions between “self-interest” and “mutual/ shared interest” and the notion of a “mutually beneficial outcome” provide keys to understanding the motivations of competitive actors in a conflict situation. 

2 men arguing

Collaborative approaches in policy domains are not driven by altruistic tendencies or simple “good will” but by people’s awareness that their interests are interdependent.  “Otherwise, they would pursue their interests outside the collaborative process.  They hope to achieve something together that they cannot achieve alone” (Booher & Innes, 2001:17). 

Collaborative efforts can create concerns when they arise as alternative processes running parallel to officially sanctioned government initiatives that provide clear procedural and substantive decision-making guidelines.  Direct deliberations and consensus agreements between dominant actors outside of formal institutions raise legitimate questions about issues of accountability, representation, and access (see Burrows, 2000; Freeman, 1997; Wondolleck & Yaffee, 2000). 

Correspondingly, public accountability can be less than adequate where corporatist bureaucracies maintain tight control of decision-making and implementation in the policy-making process, where regulatory agencies are captive to private interests, or where minimal legislative or judicial oversight exists.  In such systems, collaborative initiatives can increase transparency, access and accountability (Freeman, 1997), supporting the argument “that the institutionalization of participation rights in land-use planning offers a more effective and non-discriminatory means of resolving environmental conflicts than the strategic pursuit of sectional interests” (Mason, 1999:126). 

Both the GBRA and SEQFA case studies reveal strikingly similar patterns, with attempts by respective government authorities to constrain the political discourse inside the cognitive boundaries of the prevailing sustained yield/IRM paradigm.  See my related article featuring these two case studies.

Daniels and Walker (2001:58) make a distinction between two dominant strategic orientations: “collaborative/integrative” and “competitive/ distributive” (also see Fisher et al., 1997; Lewicki et al., 2001). 

A competitive strategy is employed where disputants perceive a limited resource and anticipate gaining as much of it as possible for themselves.  Each party assumes a position and employs “positional bargaining” to exert power and control in seeking to achieve its preferred outcome. 

A collaborative strategy arises when parties perceive the potential for an integrative solution and generate alternative solutions using creative problem solving techniques; in which case the fundamental structure of the response offers the potential for all sides to substantially achieve their objectives. 

In both case studies, a transformation occurred when incentive structures shifted to the extent that rational economic calculus made it evident to industry that the benefits of cooperation exceeded the costs of non-cooperation.  At this stage progressive elements within the development coalition sought to collaborate directly with individuals in the environmental coalition, outside of formal government planning frameworks.  Both sides realized it was in their best interests to cooperate in order to develop mutually beneficial outcomes, rather than exacerbating the conflict by continuing to focus on self-interests alone. 

The emergence of autonomous collaborative efforts in the SEQ and GBR, outside of formal government processes, clearly signaled acknowledgment of changes in incentive structures by actors within both policy domains.  In both cases, government was compelled to acknowledge the validity of the consensus agreements and to formally recognize the changes through official policy.

While recognizing the importance of the background trends (including changes in market conditions, ecological crises and internationalization) [note 1] the contention here is that the pre-eminent factor motivating policy change in both cases was the change in incentive structure associated with a paradigm shift in the prevailing discourse. 

Once the paradigm shift gained public resonance, against the background of changing trends, a series of focusing events served to expand the issue and heighten salience.  In both cases, this was effectively facilitated by the discursive competence and strategic practices of activists within the environmental movement. 

Framework for Integrating Competitive and Collaborative Processes

Activists who are conversant with new and emerging approaches to governance will be in a better position to take advantage of increasing public awareness and shifting paradigms at key opportunities.

In “new governance” there is growing recognition of a shift in public management from command and control to negotiation and persuasion as the preferred management approach (for example, see Salamon, 2002).  Competitive decision-making is often associated with “command and control” or adversarial styles of public administration.  In a collaborative style of governance, negotiation based on mutual-interest complements and potentially supersedes competitive decision-making based on self-interest alone. 

In the figure below, four contrasting patterns of policy change are depicted in the context of collaborative governance. [see note 2] 

Using the framework diagram, various policy scenarios can be associated with relevant quadrants, based on:

  1. the level of policy discourse associated with the key legitimating arguments of the parties involved (along the continuum of causal-to-principled beliefs – and associated policy targets), and
  2. the level of cooperation between parties (from non-cooperation to open collaboration). 

Typology of Policy Change by Levels of Cooperation and Discourse

The salient characteristics of these four patterns of policy change are summarized below:

Q1 Competitive Incremental:

Characterized by a command and control approach (rigid, prescriptive) in a competitive mode (self-interest versus pursuit of mutual interests); good at problem identification, but not as good for advancing solutions; status quo bias (Dorcey & McDaniels, 2001:278); rules are considered bargains; government officials are on the inside, stakeholders are on the outside; the primary goal for stakeholders is to win; e.g., certain consensus-based models; [note 3] the RFA process in Australia. [note 4]

These processes typically result in instrument level changes in policy.  However, complex, intractable conflicts most often remain unresolved.  The prevailing discourse is at the technical, causal level.  If key legitimating ideas of the dominant discourse lose scientific credibility or public legitimacy, the resulting paradigm shift could influence policy choice at the level of policy goals/programs (shifting the process to Q3 or Q4). 

Q2 Collaborative Incremental:

Could be characterized as the “multi-stakeholder” emergent shared-agreement approach, e.g. LRMP process in BC (see Duffy et al., 1998; Wilson, 2001).

Processes in this quadrant are suitable for resolving complex conflicts in contested policy situations within established institutional frameworks, by facilitating negotiated settlements (usually reflecting the status quo, however, there can be room for creativity and innovation) at the level of technical discourse over policy instruments (in contrast to principles/values discourse and programs/ policy goals in Q4). 

Often involves multi-stakeholder negotiation and decision-making characterized as consensus seeking (in contrast to position-based negotiations).  Collaborative institutional arrangements (Q2 & Q4) can shift a degree of responsibility from government to multiple stakeholders. 

The main differences between Q2 and Q4 include the level of policy discourse, associated policy targets, and the eventual degree of policy change.  Discourse in the Q2 dynamic occurs at the technical, causal level and processes within this quadrant often result in relatively long periods of stability, because stakeholder buy-in is often substantial.  If, however, the prevailing discourse shifts to the level of values/principles/policy goals, and government attempts to constrain the unfolding process to Q2, it is likely that a conflict will become even more contentious and potentially intractable.

Q3 Competitive paradigmatic:

Government retains management control; legitimacy rests with statutory authority; accountability is focused on individuals and institutions; the status quo bias is usually mitigated by social and political pressure; e.g., the shift in forest policy from the sustained yield paradigm to the IRM paradigm (Wilson, 1998); the Fraser Island Inquiry (Queensland) (see Neumann, 1992).

These processes can engender significant change; typically, however, they result in relatively narrow solutions mandated by government.  Conflicts may be resolved to a sufficient degree to achieve a period of relative stability, especially if policies favor powerful actors within the dominant coalition. 

However, long-term resolution of complex social and environmental conflicts is difficult in Q3 because of the competitive / adversarial orientation.  Lack of participatory mechanisms can easily challenge the legitimacy of such processes.

Q4 Collaborative Paradigmatic:

Involves collaborative approaches in pursuit of mutual interests; community-based management; multi-stakeholder processes involving consensus principles; policy discourse at the level of values/principles/goals, in Q4 legitimacy shifts to become more citizen-centered; power sharing becomes the norm; and government recognizes the need to adopt a facilitative network management role (Howlett, 2001); e.g., SEQFA, GBRA.

Q4 processes are characterized by dramatic change involving new policy goals and/or new programs.  In this quadrant, societal actors are deeply involved in the collaborative deliberations and policy choices that become institutionalized (with new ideas being more easily introduced in comparison to the other quadrants). 

The success of activists in compelling paradigmatic policy change is dependent upon the introduction of innovative ideas, especially at the level of principled beliefs, discursive competence and the forging of shared interests with competing actors. 

Q4 dynamics are suitable for managing complex (often seemingly intractable) conflicts featuring indirect management of self-steering networks and collaborative coalitions, where the policy subsystem is open to creative, innovative solutions delivering on new policy goals that may entail significant institutional and legislative reform. 

The principal role for government is network management: encouraging a shared belief system about cooperation (intersubjective knowledge), facilitating collaboration, and helping to establish a “means to reach discourse closure” (Webler, 1995:74).  

Recognizing the Strategic Value of Both Competition AND Collaboration

The suggested framework provides activists with a practical tool for recognizing the appropriate circumstances and timing for taking a collaborative vs competitive stance, and vice versa. 

In Quadrants 1, 2, and 3, government policy brokers and established decision makers retain power and control over policy goals.  Quadrant 4 represents a shift to collaborative policy-making at a “higher” level of discourse aimed at resolving complex issues, with government compelled to adopt a “network management” approach (Howlett, 2001). 

Policy brokers within government are often resistant to making a shift to Quadrant 4 because of loss of power and control, while progressive elements within government often perceive a new vector of forces pointing towards a shift in public values. 

Given the expanding spectrum of values in modern society, government agencies will increasingly find themselves compelled to proactively engage in facilitating collaborative processes, providing policy entrepreneurs and activists with natural points of access for introducing new and innovative ideas.

The integrated competitive/collaborative typology presented here remedies the tendency of many proponents of collaboration to advocate total abandonment of competition (and conflict) in favor of cooperation when, in actuality, a healthy system of democratic governance is reliant on a dynamic tension between the two. [note 5]  

It is important to remember that deliberative approaches represent an enrichment of representative democracy rather than a replacement (Munton, 2003:111).  

In this regard, social and environmental movements may be able to achieve greater success by maintaining both ‘competitive’ and ‘collaborative’ factions working together in concert.  If such an approach is undertaken it becomes vital to develop an overarching strategic framework that clearly identifies common goals for the entire movement. 

Practical Implications for Citizen Activists

Activists can use this typology to associate specific levels of policy discourse with particular modes of policy change.  Here are some key points based on the analysis of the case studies and the suggested framework:

  • Incremental change is associated with policy discourse at the level of causal/technical ideas
  • Ideas at the level of principled beliefs and norms define the very core of a prevailing paradigm. 
  • A prevailing paradigm is usually unassailable to reform coalitions because the principled beliefs of reformers are blocked from entering the policy discourse. 
  • If a reform coalition succeeds in penetrating the policy discourse with principled ideas aimed at revising/ renegotiating core policy goals, paradigmatic policy change can occur. 
  • Consequently, the reform coalition’s key legitimating ideas come to play a prominent role in the emerging consensus. 

As demonstrated in the case studies, government agencies and dominant coalitions often attempt to shift or constrain the prevailing discourse from the level of values/principled beliefs to that of causal beliefs and technical considerations (Keeley & Scoones, 2003; Renn et al., 1995:357). 

It becomes evident that activists can increase their effectiveness as agents of change when they learn to identify and introduce new principled beliefs to the policy sphere that resonate with public perceptions. 

In practical terms, activists involved in an unsatisfactory or intractable policy dynamic can adopt a strategic orientation by:

  1. Assessing their current situation in terms of the quadrants described, thereby gaining a better understanding of the dynamics involved, and,
  2. developing a strategy to progress towards a quadrant that offers the potential to enact change at the level of new policy goals and institutional reform.

In general, individuals and groups can improve the potential for instituting sustainable, long-term policy changes that reflect their views and ideas, by:

  1. Highlighting relevant principles and values in communicating key ideas that are new to the policy sphere (the higher the public resonance the better), and,
  2. Resisting almost certain attempts by entrenched interests to the limit the policy discourse to technicalities and causal arguments, and,
  3. Seeking cooperative advantage as incentive structures change and opportunities arise, by forming informal and/or formal coalitions with one-time adversaries (thereby introducing a “new” mix of people).

This post is an excerpt from my article that originally appeared in Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Volume 3 (1): May 2011


[1] See Howlett (2001:317-23) for a discussion of background trends and their likely effect on environmental policy outcomes in Canada.  He identifies four key trends: internationalization of environmental politics; ecological crises; post-staples economic adjustment; and political and cultural change.  These trends are also likely to be key influences in the Australian context.

[2] A number of highly respected typologies of public participation already exist and the intent is not to attempt to replicate or supersede them.  The typology developed here is focused on explicating the relation between collaborative processes and policy change.  For examples of typologies of public participation see Arnstein (1969), Renn et al. (1993), and Thomas (1993).

[3] There is a distinction between consensus-seeking processes characterized by a competitive orientation with adversaries in pursuit of self-interests (Q1/Q3), versus collaborative consensus-seeking processes with participants engaged in pursuit of mutual interests (Q2/Q4).  Processes can begin as competitive consensus-seeking processes and evolve towards collaborative processes if participants establish sufficient common ground and develop mutual trust and respect.  And the reverse can also occur, if established trust is adversely impacted (Lewicki & Robinson, 1998; Lewicki et al., 1999). 

[4] The typical RFA process includes stakeholder consultation (not collaboration) in the assessment phase and then reverts to a command-and-control process of scenario development and implementation (see Dargavel, 1998:29).

[5] For example, Dryzek (1996) argues convincingly that a flourishing democratic society is largely dependent on the presence of an oppositional civil society which is “actually facilitated by a passively exclusive state.”  Dryzek considers corporatism to be the main contemporary form of such a state.


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About the Author

George Sranko is a founding director of Wise Democracy Victoria and an associate with the international Center for Wise Democracy.  He has an MA (Hons) in Professional Ethics and Governance from Griffith University, Queensland, Australia and a B.Sc. in Zoology from the University of British Columbia, Canada.

George has spent over thirty years as an environmental educator, activist and professional biologist.  He was one of the original appointees to the Provincial Capital Commission Greenways Committee in Victoria, BC in the early 1990s and was instrumental in the collaborative efforts involved in creating one of the most successful greenways networks in Canada.

He has consulted extensively with all levels of government on a range of resource management projects involving strategic planning, development, and implementation of programs and policies.  As an environmental activist he has come to realize that ecological sustainability is ultimately in the hands of citizens; and those individuals and groups who are willing to take bold and radical steps aimed at shifting paradigms and creating systemic change.  All too often, politicians and decision-makers remain mired in the status quo and captive to entrenched interests, to the degree that sufficiently innovative solutions must come from outside the system.

Not satisfied with theoretical discussions about collaborative processes, George is a trained dynamic facilitator, an approach proven to engender breakthrough results.