Media coverage does not ebb and flow. Rather, media coverage rapidly moves from crisis to stasis and back again. The result of these attention dynamics is news reporting that is disproportional to the breadth and pace of policy problems in the world, where some balloon in the news beyond expectations and others fade quickly (or never make the news at all). These patterns of news coverage result from the powerful role that momentum plays in the news-generation process. Forces of positive feedback drive news outlets to chase each new hot story quickly, while negative feedback forces drive news outlets to stay locked onto a hot story at hand. Together, these forces drive news coverage to lurch and fixate, lurch and fixate, again and again. Thus, although previous research has conceived of the news-generation process functioning either as a “patrol” system (where news outlets act as sentinels, tracking each policy problem as it unfolds in the world) or as an “alarm” system (where news outlets move in quick bursts from one policy problem to the next, with little to no in-depth coverage), both these previous models tell only half the story. Rather, the news-generation process is best understood through the alarm/patrol hybrid model, where news outlets often lurch from one hot item to the next but sometimes become entrenched in an unfolding storyline. The alarm/patrol hybrid model helps explain the particular phenomenon of “media storms” that can occur, where a sudden surge in media attention can vault a previously ignored issue into the center of public and political attention; think of the Catholic priest abuse scandal, or the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death. The lurching/fixating dynamics of media attention have far-ranging implications for citizen information and political response, contributing to a wider system of disproportionate information processing where some topics are attended to and others are largely ignored. In particular, because policymakers take so many of their cues from the news, it is likely the case that the lurching/fixating patterns of our media system exacerbate the punctuated patterns of government in turn.
Amber E. Boydstun and Annelise Russell
JoBeth Shafran, Bryan D. Jones, and Connor Dye
Bounded rationality is the notion that while humans want to be fully rational beings and weigh the costs and benefits when making a decision, they cannot do so due to cognitive and emotional limitations. The role of human nature in the study and design of organizations can be examined through three general approaches that are explained using metaphors: organization as machine, organization as hierarchy, and organization as canal. The organization-as-machine approach ignores the principles of bounded rationality by assuming the organizational members perform straightforward cost–benefit responses to the incentives put forward by the operators. Later developments in organizational scholarship incorporate elements of bounded rationality and allowed researchers to link human cognitive capacities to the basic organizational features, giving us two new conceptions of organization: organization as hierarchy and organization as canal. Organization as hierarchy focuses on the organization’s use of subunits to create divisions of labor to expand the capacity to process information and problem-solve. Organization as canal recognizes that the weaknesses of human cognition are still channeled into the organizational structure, making it difficult for organizations to update their preferences and assumptions as they receive new information. These principles of bounded rationality in organizational theory can be applied to policy-making institutions. Hierarchical organizations delegate information processing to the subunits, allowing them to attend to the various policy environments and process incoming information. While the collective organization attends to many issues at once, the rules and procedures that are present within the organization and the cognitive limits of decision makers, prevent proportional information processing. Political institutions are unable to respond efficiently to changes in the environment. Thus, organizational adjustment to the environment is characterized as disjointed and episodic as opposed to smooth and incremental. Punctuated equilibrium theory applies these tenets of bounded rationality to a theory of policy change. Congress has been a vehicle for studying bounded rationality in organizations and theories of policy change, as it is a formal institution with bureaucratic elements and is subject to the constraints faced by any formal organization.
Incrementalism is a model of the policy process advanced by Charles Lindblom, who views rational decision making as impossible for most issues due to a combination of disagreement over objectives and an inadequate knowledge base. Policies are made instead through a pluralistic process of partisan mutual adjustment in which a multiplicity of participants focus on proposals differing only incrementally from the status quo. Significant policy change occurs, if at all, through a gradual accumulation of small changes, a process Lindblom calls seriality. While Lindblom sees nonincremental policy departures as extremely rare, subsequent research suggests that major policy departures may occur in response to crises or mass public arousal, through the development of a rationalizing breakthrough after many years of experience with policy implementation, or through a process of punctuated equilibrium. While many scholars and policymakers have argued that nonincremental alternatives may at times be superior to incremental ones, implementing nonincremental policy departures poses special problems and often gives way to incrementalism in the administrative process as public attention and support for strong action wane. Nonincremental policy departures are more likely to be both enduring and effective where long experience with an issue leads to consensus on values and an adequate knowledge base, giving rise to a rationalizing breakthrough. Properly understood, incrementalism is a form of what Sowell termed systemic rationality. The policy process would work more efficiently if all participants recognized the superiority of systemic rationality over what Sowell calls articulated rationality, just as Lindblom does in arguing the superiority of incrementalism over the synoptic ideal. For all its problems, our current system of polarized parties fails to eliminate the need for incrementalism. To the contrary, conditional party government makes possible a new form of partisan incrementalism that offers some advantages over traditional incrementalism.