A primer on policy entrepreneurs

  • Authors: Jo Luetjens
  • Published Date: 06 March 2017

In light of her soon to be published book chapter ‘Policy Entrepreneurs and Foreign Policy Decision-Making’ (with Professor Michael Mintrom), ANZSOG researcher Jo Luetjens has written a summary of who and what a policy entrepreneur is, as well as the strategies they use to create change. Jo is soon to move to the Netherlands to undertake her PhD on successful public governance at Utrecht University with Professor Paul 't Hart. We wish her well!

The what

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic people who work with others in and around policymaking venues to promote significant policy change. The concept was introduced by John W. Kingdon in 1984, who said policy entrepreneurs "…could be in or out of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organisations. But their defining characteristic, much as in the case of a business entrepreneur, is their willingness to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money – in the hope of a future return" (p. 122). Policy entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by being prepared to promote policy approaches that are new within specific contexts. They often promote policy innovations by telling new stories, creating new frames, or making arguments that break down traditional alignments of interests.

The why

The policymaking space, according to Kingdon, is made up by three more or less independent activities: the problem stream, the politics stream, and the policy stream. He argued that moments arise when perceptions of problems, political circumstances, and ideas for possible solutions all come into alignment. These moments are called ‘windows of opportunity’ or ‘policy windows’, and offer a real chance to enact policy change. Change is difficult, and this can frustrate people who want to make a positive difference in their area of work, so policy windows offer an opportunity for policy entrepreneurs to strike. They ‘lie in wait’, then take advantage of windows as they emerge. While Kingdon was looking directly at domestic policy change in the United States Congress, many scholars have followed his lead and have found policy entrepreneurs to be agents of policy change across a broad range of policy areas.

The how

The broader policymaking context will always be critical for determining the likelihood of policy entrepreneurs emerging, and the success they have in promoting policy change. However, there are specific strategies that policy entrepreneurs pursue that can increase their chances of influencing change. These include:

  1. Framing problems and redefining policy solutions. Policy entrepreneurs are conversationalists who create meaning through their discussion with others, bringing them along in the process. They do not simply impose their view and expect others to follow.
  2. Using and expanding networks. These actors tap into and understand how to use the skills and knowledge of others. They view networks as a vital resource they can draw on to support their cause.
  3. Creating a guiding advocacy coalition. Like entrepreneurs in business, policy entrepreneurs must be team players. This is where their real strength comes for. Team building can take several forms. The size and composition of these coalitions can be crucial for demonstrating the degree of support enjoyed by a proposal for policy change.
  4. Leading by example. Risk aversion among decision-makers presents a major challenge for actors seeking to promote significant policy change. Policy entrepreneurs often take actions intended to reduce risk – both real and perceived. A common strategy involves engaging with others to clearly demonstrate the feasibility of a policy proposal. This can do a lot to win credibility with others and build momentum for change.
  5. Building momentum and scaling up the change efforts. Policy entrepreneurs can tie together seemingly disparate change efforts to create a united platform that builds momentum for change on a larger scale. Leadership by example is vital to demonstrating credibility and making the pursuit of policy change believable. 

The Who

While anyone can and may pursue these strategies in pursuit of policy change, there are particular personal attributes associated with highly effective policy entrepreneurs. These include:

  1. Ambition. Pushing a major policy agenda takes great commitment and energy. This attribute is vital for getting others to believe in what you are seeking to do and to join your efforts. Ambition for a particular cause supplies the ‘why’ that explains everything else that policy entrepreneurs do.
  2. Social acuity. The essential actions of policy entrepreneurs – problem framing, building teams, and leading by example – all call for high levels of social acuity. Windows of opportunity don’t come along with labels on them – they need to be perceived within complex social and political contexts. Through their social acuity, policy entrepreneurs discover how people are thinking about problems. They come to appreciate the concerns and motivations that drive others.
  3. Credibility. As policy entrepreneurship involves pursuing innovative goals by building coalitions of support, these actors must be credible. They can achieve credibility in a number of ways, for example, through expertise in a particular field, or their ability to gather coalitions of support
  4. Sociability. Although they choose particular policy ideas to support, policy entrepreneurs always consider how others will respond to what they have on offer. They empathise with others and understand their needs. This allows them to identify common interests between themselves and others. They make others feel appreciated.
  5. Tenacity. Policy entrepreneurs must be willing to keep working towards a bigger goal, even when that goal seems nowhere in sight. This is especially important because policymaking contexts are often highly complex and the chances of achieving success can seem slim.

Want more?

Professor Mintrom is leading an upcoming workshop on Policy and Program Skills, 28-30 March 2017, Melbourne

If you want to learn more about policy entrepreneurship across specific policy areas, we recommend:

Huitema, D., and Meijerink, S. (2010). Realising water transitions: The role of policy entrepreneurs in water policy change. Ecology and Society 15(2): 26.

Kingdon, J.W. (2011). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. (2nd ed.). Boston: Longman.

Mintrom, M. (1997). Policy entrepreneurs and the diffusion of innovation. American Journal of Political Science 41(3): 738-770.

Mintrom, M., and Vergari, S. (1996). Advocacy coalitions, policy entrepreneurs, and policy change. Policy Studies Journal 24(3): 420-434. 

Mintrom, M., and Norman, P. (2009). Policy entrepreneurship and policy change. Policy Studies Journal 37(4): 649-667.

Mintrom, M., Salisbury, C., and Luetjens, J. (2014). Policy entrepreneurs and promotion of Australian state knowledge economies. Australian Journal of Political Science 49(3): 423-438.