As we mentioned in our first part, political institutions are dominated by deep-rooted norms and values, and therefore are often highly resistant to change. However, this does not preclude the possibility of change under the right conditions. But this change is complex and is a result of many different influencing factors. In this section, we are going to consider some of the factors that might influence change.
Crucial to change is the policy environment. This refers to the context in which policymakers make their decisions. These factors are usually out of the control of a policymaker and can influence or constrain their policy choices. Elements of the policy environment may include demographic change, the economy, changes in social attitudes and behaviour, global trends and significant local, national or global events. For example, an ageing population may give governments little option but to respond and plan for its consequences or an economic recession may necessitate governments to introduce policies to protect the country against its effects.
However, on their own these factors do not result in the policy changes we see. Otherwise, we would expect all countries to follow the same policy route when responding to the same event or policy problem.
The policy environment, rather than being seen as the sole reason policy changes, should instead be seen as providing a window of opportunity, which can be used to create policy change. This model of change is called punctuated equilibrium .
Punctuated equilibrium states that when an event occurs or there are changes to a policy environment, it disrupts (or punctuates) the equilibrium of particular policy ideals. This disruption can be used as a window of opportunity for political actors to challenge current policy in favour of a new policy direction. If enough pressure is exerted in this challenge, this new policy direction may replace previous policy directions, becoming the dominant policy ideal.
Key to this challenging is the framing process. Policy problems do not necessarily receive the most attention by policymakers, because they are the most important or immediate issues facing society, but because those advocating for them are able to convince people that their issues are the most worthy of discussions. It is how an issue is framed or presented that influences the policy to it and not necessarily the issue itself.
The media plays an important role in the framing process. It can act as both a filter and a booster of political issues, being used to increase public and political pressure about certain problems and encourage the public and policymakers to see policy issues in certain ways.
Public policy theorists Baumgartner and Jones use American nuclear power policy as a useful example to understand how this process of policy change occurs . Initially when nuclear power was introduced after World War 2, there were minimal opposing voices. Nuclear power was seen in policy domains as representing technological progress. This remained the dominant policy image until the 1970s, when national unions and environmental activists began to challenge it by raising concerns of the environmental danger of nuclear power. These concerns were backed up by scientists, giving these claims credibility, and environmentalists used the mass media to disseminate this new message. Through these efforts, this new policy image gained the attention of congress, courts, local government and regulatory bodies, exerting pressure on them and resulting in regulatory change in nuclear power policy.
Similar to the punctuated equilibrium theory is Kingdon’s (1995) Multiple Streams Analysis . Like, punctuated equilibrium theory, Multiple Streams Analysis, acknowledges that the process of change starts with a ‘window of opportunity’. But in order for this opportunity to be used to bring about change, Kingdon argues that three ‘separate’ streams need to come together at the same time: the problem stream, the policy stream and the politics stream. The problem stream, refers to the framing process (mentioned above), where sufficient attention is drawn towards a policy problem, highlighting the need for it be addressed through policy. However, attention to an issue alone is not enough to lead to change. There must be an available solution to the problem (the policy stream), either identified by those drawing attention to the policy problem, or policymakers themselves. There must also be political motive and opportunity to implement policy change (the politics stream), as ultimately it is those in political power who can decide whether or not to take heed of public opinion and the arguments made by interest groups. Without all three of these streams coming together, a window of opportunity will not lead to policy change.
Therefore, we see that change is complex and it is only under the right conditions that a window of opportunity will lead to change. Nevertheless, there are ways that we as individuals who may be seeking to influence policy might use this knowledge, when campaigning on issues that are important to us. Make sure to keep an eye on the policy environment, looking for windows of opportunity; be it an event, changes to public attitudes or a demographic change. Secondly, make sure you’ve thought about how you might frame your issue and what channels you might use to increase awareness and place pressure on policymakers to address it. Then, you might want to identify a solution to policymakers, showing them that not only is there an identifiable problem, but there is also an identifiable way forward. Finally, you might want to think about carefully about how you might convince policymakers that supporting a particular reform would be in their own interests.
 Baumgartner, F., & Jones, B. (1993). Punctuated equilibria in politics. Agendas and instability in American politics, 3-24.
 Kingdon, J. W. (1995). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: HarperCollins College Publishers.