Kingdon’s multiple streams approach

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I’ve made myself a list of all the theories, concepts and key players that seem to appear in literature about the policy process.  The idea is that I use this braindump as a springboard to structure my reading a little more.   Kingdon and his multiple streams approach  was the first one on the list.  You see it in lots of places.

So I’ve read relevant sections of Hill’s book (2013) and Cairney’s book (2012) and a few other bits and pieces.  As Paul Cairney has written a great blog summarising all the key elements and concepts in Kingdon’s work I am not going to repeat all that here.

Instead I want to reflect on a few things.

Does this resonate with my everyday experience? – Answer, very much so.  Even at urban level, the lens provided by Kingdon’s model really helps me make sense of the world around me.  There are aspects of Kingdon’s discussion of streams which resonate with Vickers discussions of everyday life as a flux of events and ideas which I have always found a helpful way of thinking about the world I participate in.  Carrying on with the link with Vickers, Kingdon’s ideas do provide a helpful ‘appreciative setting’ – way of being sensitise to some aspects of the situation.

How does this get used in research? – in some ways the multiple streams are the product of Kingdon’s research process – a way that he chose to explain what he saw around him in the US context.  But whilst, I’ve highlighted above of the informal way in which the multiple streams can help you to make sense of a situation, others have formalised this as part of their research.  Katikireddi et al (2014) for example use the multiple streams (and two other theories of policy process) as a framework within which to analyse and interpret the data they collected about the minimum unit pricing policy process in Scotland.  De Leeuw (1999) does a similiar thing taking one element of the model (policy entrepreneur which she refers to as social entrepreneur) to discuss the role of the coordinator in a WHO designated healthy city.

What does this mean for what I do when I do what I do? – the study just referred to is obviously of interest to me given that I am a coordinator in a WHO designated healthy city.  It’s an awkward one this – I’ve said that the multiple streams approach gives me understanding of the world in which I practice but I am not sure it automatically gives me ideas to improve my practice – my way of acting in that world.  Not sure that knowing this theory subsequently changes me – but I’ll see you never know.

And finally it is interesting how a key metaphor in Kingdon’s multiple streams – that of ‘windows of opportunity’ – is echo-ed into policy language.  I noticed for example that the book prepared for the WHO 8th global conference in health promotion is called “Health in All Policies (HiAP): Seizing opportunities, implementing policies” and a more recent publication by WHO is called “Health in Impact Assessments: Opportunities not to be missed“.  It seems at least one idea from Kingdon’s ideas is being taken up intuitively by policy entrepreneurs – though I am not sure many readers of these documents would necessarily know the reference.


Cairney, P., 2012. Understanding Public Policy: theories and issues. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

De Leeuw, E., 1999. Healthy Cities: urban social entrepreneurship for health. Health Promotion International 14, 261–270.

Hill, M., 2013. The Public Policy Process, Sixth Edition. ed. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow.

Katikireddi, S.V., Hilton, S., Bonell, C., Bond, L., 2014. Understanding the Development of Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol in Scotland: a qualitative study of the policy process. PloS ONE 9, e91185.

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