Crisis-driven and business-as-usual agenda setting

oleh Khairul Rizal*

What policy areas are more likely to experience each type of agenda setting, and why?

In policy-making process, how an issue is framed into policy agenda would affect the policy alternatives and outcomes. Agenda is defined by Kingdon (1995) as a set of issues considered as the pressing problems at the moment. Grindle and Thomas (1991) have proposed a crisis-ridden framework to analyse how issues are managed within a policy agenda in developing countries. They identify features such as external pressure on problems, high political and economic stakes for high-level decision makers, major change in policy, and urgency situation as the characteristics of decision-making in crisis-driven agenda-setting.

This paper will show that policy areas which are considered to have effect on the stability of the government are more likely to experience the crisis-driven agenda-setting in policy-making process, whereas those that are perceived to have a little or no effect on macro-political condition are likely to go through ‘business-as-usual’ agenda-setting.

Most kinds of reform in macroeconomic policies such as financial and monetary system reform or industrialisation policy reform often engage in crisis-driven agenda-setting. In the mind of policy makers these kinds of policy, if wrongly managed, could risk the overall development and even lead the country to the brink of failing state. As Grindle and Thomas (1989) argue, policy elites are most concerned about certain kinds of policy which have effect on macro-political condition such as the legitimacy and survival of the regime, social stability, and national interest. Macroeconomic policies are considered by most policy makers as one of policy areas that could bring those effects simultaneously.

The economic crisis that hit Indonesia severely in 1997 is a good example of how crisis-driven agenda-setting were put in action. The 1997 crisis exhibited how the problem was pressed upon decision makers by the outside actors, i.e. student movements and the IMF, rather than chosen by the government itself. The case also demonstrates how the highest level of decision makers was directly engaged in managing the crisis. Aware of the urgency to take necessary actions the president made a quick and tough decision to accept the whole package of economic reform imposed by the IMF. Similarly, cases of macroeconomic reform in Gambia, Ghana, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama also exhibited a crisis-driven agenda-setting in policy-making process. In short, policies that have immediate effect on macro political condition, or so the decision makers believe, are likely to experience the crisis-driven in policy-making process.

On the contrary, business-as-usual agenda-setting is usually found in policy areas that have less or no effect on the continuity and solidity of the state. Policies on organisational change such as decentralisation and planning agency reform are among policies that likely to experience business-as-usual agenda-setting (Grindle & Thomas 1991). These kinds of policy would affect only the state performance in general. It would not directly threaten the legitimacy of those in power nor disturb social stability and national interests.

Several sectoral policies such as health, infrastructure, and environment are often to be kept in the political-as-usual as long as they do not generate significant challenges to the regime. However, when a crisis is perceived, these policies would immediately get serious attention from the decision makers. Health sector is one of policy issues that are usually contested through business-as-usual agenda-setting. However, it could be treated as in crisis-driven policy making process especially once a new epidemic disease such as avian flu was threatening.

In business-as-usual policy-making, policy makers tend to pay less attention to the policy-making process and the agenda-setting would follow the regular process of agenda setting: from issues creation to issues expansion and then become policy agenda of decision makers (Parsons 1995). Alcopop tax policy in Australia would be a good example to explain the business-as-usual in agenda-setting process. Trigged by the negative impact of alcohol drink on teenager, the alcopop issue started to emerge (issue creation). Since the mass media inflated the alcopop issue (issue expansion) it becomes a pressing problem for the government. In this way, the alcopop issue made it into decision makers’ agenda (policy agenda).

In summary, whether a policy is more likely to experience crisis-driven agenda-setting or political-as-usual agenda-setting depends on how the policy makers perceive the crisis situation surrounding a policy. Threats to the sustainability of the government, social stability and national interest would be the main concern of decision makers in sensing the presence of a crisis. Evidence from Indonesia and several developing countries have shown that macroeconomic policies are one of policy areas mostly engage in crisis-driven agenda-setting. In contrast, policy areas such as organisational changes and sectoral policies that usually have a little or no effect on macro-political condition are likely to experience business-as-usual agenda-setting process.


Grindle, MS & Thomas, JW 1989, ‘Policy makers, policy choices, and policy outcomes: The political economy of reform in developing countries’, Policy Sciences, vol. 22, pp. 213-248.

____ 1991, Public choices and policy change: the political economy of reform in developing countries, the John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Horowitz, DL 1989, ‘Is there a third world policy process?’, Policy Sciences, vol. 22, pp. 197-212.

Kingdon, JW 1995, Agenda, alternatives, and public policies, HarperCollins, New York.

Parsons, DW 1995, Public policy: an introduction to the theory and practice of policy analysis, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK, pp. 125-134.

*Penulis adalah pemerhati kebeijakan publik, perkotaan, dan perencanaan. Tulisan ini dibuat pada tahun 2009 ketika penulis masih mahasiswa S2 di ANU.

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