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Explaining local policy choices: a multiple streams analysis of municipal emergency management.

Although they operate within a limited framework bounded by provincial laws and regulations, municipal governments regularly make policy choices to determine who gets what, when and how. Responding to countless political, economic and social pressures, municipal authorities must necessarily choose among competing priorities and selectively allocate scarce resources to a limited set of problems. Why do municipal decision-makers address some problems but not others? Why, when faced with similar problems, do municipalities adopt different policy solutions?

This article focuses on the specific policy field of emergency management, which is a functional responsibility of all municipal governments in Canada. Although all communities face potential emergencies - ice storms, floods, train derailments, industrial accidents, and so on--some municipalities have undertaken comprehensive emergency planning while others have scarcely implemented even basic emergency measures. As explained below, due to a general apathy towards emergency management among citizens and elected officials, significant policy development in this area typically requires a purposive campaign by interested actors, who must persuade decision-makers to commit resources to policy proposals. These political dynamics make emergency management policy-making ideal for illustrating the utility of the Multiple Streams framework, an analytical lens that offers guidance in explaining public policy choices.

I begin by reviewing the Multiple Streams framework, identifying its underlying assumptions, structural features and explanatory logic. I then apply these theoretical elements to emergency management, adjusting the lens to focus on policy-making at the municipal level. As a means of illustrating the policy dynamics theorized by the Multiple Streams framework, the third section of this article provides a brief account of emergency management policy development in Sarnia, Ontario.

The Multiple Streams framework

Public policies are the output of the political system, the result of choices made by decision-makers about whether and how public authority and resources will be used to address problems (Pelissero 2003). But which problems are to be addressed? For a problem to reach the decision agenda, it must be salient, urgent and solvable. That is, it must be recognized as important and deserving of government attention, it must command priority relative to other problems competing for attention and resources, and there must be an available solution that is deemed feasible and acceptable. Explaining policy choices, therefore, requires an understanding of how problems are recognized and defined, how and why some problems get added to the decision agenda, how alternative policy solutions are formulated, and how a course of action is selected and why. These elements of policy-making--problem definition, agenda-setting, policy formulation and decision-making--are addressed by the Multiple Streams (MS) framework.

The foundation for the MS framework was laid in John Kingdon's analysis of federal government agenda-setting in the United States, originally published in 1984 and updated in 1995 and 2003. Other scholars have refined and extended its theoretical concepts (Zahariadis 2003, 2005) and have applied it to various policy domains. For example, the MS framework has been used to examine and explain privatization decisions in Britain and Germany (Zahariadis and Allen 1995), policy change following major catastrophes in the United States (Birkland 1997), the development of national health insurance in Canada and the United States (Blankenau 2001) and the formulation of a landmark agreement between the federal government and voluntary-sector agencies in Canada (Phillips 2003). Although Kingdon's work and most subsequent applications address policy-making at the national level, the MS framework also offers guidance for analysing policy choices of municipal governments. The following section identifies the generic elements of the framework that can be used to analyse municipal policy-making.


Building on the "garbage can model" of organizational decision-making (Cohen, March, and Olsen 1972), the MS framework characterizes the political system as an "organized anarchy," wherein individual actors and administrative units fulfil their responsibilities and pursue their interests without considering how these relate to other functions or the mission of the organization as a whole. Decision-makers--those authorized to allocate public resources and to make binding decisions in the public interest--have limited time, due to busy schedules and multiple competing demands. Since only a limited number of problems can be under active consideration at any given time, interests both within and external to government compete for the attention of decision-makers and the scarce resources under their control. Once an issue reaches the decision agenda, public policy is not arrived at through a rational, comprehensive decision-making process but rather results from political manipulation by key actors who seek to secure their preferred policy solution (Zahariadis 2007: 69-70). How and why problems move onto the decision agenda and how they are matched with policy solutions are central considerations of the MS framework.

The three streams of the political system

The framework conceptualizes the political system as divided into three streams--the problem stream, the policy stream, and the politics stream that operate largely independently of one another but that converge periodically to form decision opportunities.

The problem stream refers to the slate of environmental conditions that citizens and policy-makers currently define as public problems and for which they seek authoritative resolution. Some conditions come to be defined as problems when indicators of problem severity suggest that action is required (Kingdon 2003: 90). Longer patient wait-times for emergency room care or diagnostic imagery, for example, are frequently regarded as signals of deteriorating health-care services. Indicators that show that a negative condition has become more widespread or has worsened significantly over time are used by interested policy actors to claim that government intervention is necessary and urgent. For instance, the Canadian Medical Association has challenged the federal government to take action on the "public health crisis" caused by air pollution, citing an increase in hospital emergency room visits as an indicator of worsening conditions (Sullivan 2007).

At other times, problems are revealed through focusing events, relatively rare occurrences that suddenly and rapidly attract attention to a problem and signal the need for corrective action (Kingdon 2003: 94-95). Focusing events, particularly if they affect a large number of people, attract media attention, and this in turn tends to generate greater public interest and concern (Birkland 1998). For example, when an outbreak of listeriosis in 2008 was tracked to tainted products from a Toronto meat-packaging plant, the event rapidly focused public and political attention on the issue of food safety and raised questions about federal policy in this area (Weeks 2008).

Finally, as policies are implemented, outcomes are assessed and evaluated. The resulting feedback can reveal new dimensions of a problem or prompt policy-makers to adopt an alternative solution (Kingdon 2003: 100-101). Moreover, public support or opposition generated in response to implemented policies provide political feedback as to the effectiveness and acceptability of policy choices.

In the policy stream, ideas regarding problem definition and preferred solutions are proposed and debated in specialized policy communities relatively stable groups of government officials, academics, consultants, institutionalized pressure groups, think tanks, and private- and voluntary-sector actors who share a common interest in a policy area (Kingdon 2003: 117). Members introduce their ideas to the policy community through various channels, such as conferences, policy papers and hearings, during which they are discussed and debated. Some ideas are rejected, others are adjusted and combined, and some survive and take hold among the members. For a proposal to survive this vetting process, the members must regard an idea as technically feasible, meaning it is likely to achieve what it is intended to accomplish. It must also be compatible with the dominant values of the policy community. For example, a proposal is unlikely to gain traction if the recommended course of action falls outside the boundaries of what the policy community believes is an appropriate role for government (131-32).

In the politics stream, a number of factors influence the likelihood that a problem will be added to the decision agenda and the relative priority it is granted vis-a-vis other issues. First, government officials are sensitive and responsive to shifts in public opinion concerning the importance of an issue. (1) An issue is more likely to come under active consideration by policy-makers and put to decision-makers for resolution if it is perceived that the balance of public opinion is supportive of government intervention. Second, some issues rise to greater prominence as a result of lobbying by pressure groups collections of individuals who are bound together by a common interest and who seek to influence public policy choices. Pressure group campaigns focus attention on an issue and often signal support for a particular course of action, creating an incentive for government officials to act. Pressure groups can also be powerful opponents of any changes to the status quo. The third political factor is the turnover of government personnel, including elected officials and key administrators who, on taking office, might have ideas, values and objectives different from those of their predecessors. New personnel might decide to suspend consideration of items currently on the decision agenda, to re-arrange their relative priority, or to give consideration to issues that have previously been ignored (Kingdon 2003: 153).

Policy windows and coupling of the streams

The three streams normally operate independently of one another but converge at critical moments, which Kingdon calls policy windows--short-lived opportunities for advocates to focus political attention on a problem and to promote their preferred solution (2003: 166). Policy windows sometimes open in the problem stream, as when a focusing event rapidly attracts attention to a problem, creating a sense of urgency to act. Policy windows also open in the political stream, such as when new legislators who are more receptive to issues previously assigned a lower priority take office. Other predictable policy windows surround the renewal of legislation and the annual budget process.
   Emergencies, by nature rare and unexpected, are generally
   not regarded by the public as a pressing problem
   requiring government intervention

Policy windows close quickly if attention is hijacked by another pressing issue. They must be seized by policy entrepreneurs--skilled advocates who invest their own resources, such as their time, expertise and reputation, to promote proposals of interest to them and to influence policy choices (Kingdon 2003: 122-23). Policy entrepreneurs perform a number of important functions in the policy process, including defining problems, mobilizing public opinion, and formulating policy solutions (Roberts and King 1991). But the most crucial function of policy entrepreneurs is "coupling" of the streams--that is, taking advantage of a policy window to persuade newly receptive political decision-makers to address a currently salient problem by choosing a policy proposal previously generated and endorsed by the policy community. Policy entrepreneurs use various tactics to secure agenda space for problems and to market their preferred solutions, such as framing problems as urgent and severe, arguing that action is overdue, and conveying the grave consequences of taking no action or of choosing an alternative course of action. Thus, although they are ultimately made by authoritative decision-makers, policy choices involve limited consideration of alternatives and are biased by the advocacy of persuasive policy entrepreneurs.
   Elected officials are quite willing to defer policy formulation
   to experts who have the training, experience and
   apparent mastery of emergency management

The MS framework offers a logical and compelling explanation for government policy choices, as Nikolaos Zahariadis summarizes:

Why do policy makers adopt some policies but not others? The MS answer can be summarized as follows: During open policy windows persistent policy entrepreneurs, who constantly search for solutions to important problems, attempt to couple the three streams. Success is more likely when all three streams are coupled, depending on the type of window that opens and the skills, resources, and strategies of entrepreneurs to focus attention and bias choice (2007: 78-79).

The framework guides analysis of problem definition, agenda-setting, policy formulation and decision-making. Specifically, it calls attention to the process by which environmental conditions come to be defined as problems, how and why problems become issues on the decision agenda, where feasible and acceptable policy proposals come from, and how decision-makers are persuaded to choose them. Figure 1 summarizes the key concepts, which are applied in the next section to municipal emergency management.

Multiple streams and municipal emergency management

Emergency management involves designing and implementing policies and programs to protect people and property from hazards (Cigler 1988: 5). Although the federal and provincial governments play an important role, primary functional responsibility for emergency management is delegated to municipal governments. The general policy framework is premised on the doctrine of "tiered response," which holds that local governments respond first to emergencies and are supported by higher-level governments only if local resources are exhausted (Scanlon 1995). This means that although they can draw on provincial or federal support if required, municipal governments must have the capacity to respond effectively to emergencies within their borders (Kuban 1996).

A number of actions can be taken at the local level to ensure an effective response to emergencies. For instance, a written emergency response plan designates authority, specifies operational procedures and provides guidance for coordinating emergency response activities (Lindell and Perry 2007). Training for responders and decision-makers prepares them for the roles they might be expected to play during an emergency and the difficulties they are likely to encounter (Daines 1991). Disaster simulation exercises detect and diagnose weaknesses in emergency plans and foster stronger working relationships among responders (Perry 2004).

But although many practical measures are available, the level of emergency preparedness varies considerably from one community to the next (Canada, Parliament, Senate, Standing Committee on National Security and Defence 2004; Wolensky and Wolensky 1990). This suggests that some municipal decision-makers have recognized emergencies as a problem and have prioritized this issue relative to others competing for attention and resources. Such an outcome is remarkable because, as explained below, there are few incentives for political officials to prioritize emergency management.

The following section applies the Multiple Streams framework to the field of emergency management. It explains the conditions under which attention is focused on the emergency problem, how policy solutions are formulated, and how and why this issue comes to be prioritized on the municipal decision agenda.

The problem stream

Canadian municipalities face many hazards that occasionally interact with community vulnerabilities to trigger major emergencies. Nevertheless, under normal conditions, citizens go about their lives with scarcely a thought to the hazards that lurk in their environment (Larsson and Enander 1997). Emergencies, by nature rare and unexpected, are generally not regarded by the public as a pressing problem requiring government intervention. As a result, there is no explicit public demand for comprehensive emergency planning.

However, citizens clearly expect governments to plan for emergencies and to be sufficiently prepared when disaster strikes. Beverly Cigler states that "under normal circumstances, few citizens place a high priority on emergency management. However, these same individuals expect their government leaders to effectively manage disasters that occur" (1988: 6). Public expectations are evidenced in the criticism directed at governments when emergency planning is perceived to have been inadequate. In a survey of those affected by the major power blackout in Ontario in 2003, for instance, roughly forty per cent of respondents felt that their municipal government had not responded effectively to the event, and about half stated that more effort should be made to prepare for emergencies (Murphy 2003: 4-5). Thus, demand for emergency management is latent but periodically becomes manifest when public attention is focused on the emergency.
   Because emergency management suffers from low levels
   of public interest and political attention, significant policy
   change typically requires a champion who can seize a
   policy window and successfully couple the three streams

Emergencies and disasters are the quintessential focusing events. The level of public interest in emergency management can shift dramatically following a major emergency, because an emergency (temporarily) alters peoples' perceived vulnerability to hazards (Weinstein et al. 2000). Moreover, media coverage of a disaster can quickly broaden and intensify public interest in emergency management, and this can attract the attention of politicians (Birkland 1996). Heightened awareness after a disaster temporarily raises the salience of emergency management, creating a policy window that can be exploited by those seeking policy change (Solecki and Michaels 1994). The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, for instance, were the catalyst for significant changes to federal emergency management policies in Canada and the United States (Henstra 2003).

The policy stream

Emergency management is dominated by specialists. Although many of the policies in this field are straightforward, it nevertheless demands specialized knowledge and familiarity with esoteric terminology. Elected officials are quite willing to defer policy formulation to experts who have the training, experience and apparent mastery of emergency management. As such, policy solutions are formulated by a specialized policy community, which includes municipal, provincial and federal practitioners, policy analysts, private-sector participants such as consultants and infrastructure managers, representatives of non-governmental humanitarian agencies such as the Canadian Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as academics and some interested members of the public. Policy ideas are proposed and debated through knowledge networks such as the Canadian Risk and Hazards Network (CRHNet) and at professional events such as the annual Emergency Preparedness Conference in Vancouver and the World Conference on Disaster Management in Toronto.

Some ideas, though technically feasible, fail the community's test of value acceptability. For instance, one effective means by which a government could address chronic flood losses is to purchase exposed properties and relocate the inhabitants to safer areas. Although this strategy has been used in other states, the Canadian policy community has generally not regarded it as an acceptable solution. Ideas that survive scrutiny and critique take hold and diffuse through the participants who integrate them into their work or package them into new policy proposals. This learning and diffusion process is complex, but its evidence can be found in phenomena such as the nearly simultaneous prioritization of pandemic influenza planning by municipal emergency managers in Vancouver, Calgary and Halifax.

Locally, actors with an interest in emergency management--emergency planners, police, fire department officials, emergency medical personnel, industry representatives, infrastructure managers, and so on--are organized into smaller networks that discuss specific problems and formulate policy solutions. On the one hand, the relatively exclusive membership of the policy community and networks gives experts significant autonomy to develop proposals they believe are optimal. On the other hand, policy development is hidden from political scrutiny, and there are few opportunities for public participation.

The politics stream

Policy choices are ultimately made by elected decision-makers, and, in the local political system, decision-making authority is held by the council. Despite the problems that emerge, these elected officials are unlikely to take action unless they believe that a public response is warranted and is politically acceptable. As noted, under normal conditions, public opinion towards emergency management among citizens is largely neutral. Although major emergencies pose a substantial risk to people and property, the probability of these events is low enough that citizens rarely see the need to prepare themselves, let alone to lobby for government action.

Municipal governments are sensitive to the demands of pressure groups. Because they generally represent small constituencies and are not subject to party discipline, city councillors are particularly susceptible to lobbying by pressure groups (Filion 1992). Pressure groups sometimes seek to persuade decision-makers to add an issue to the decision agenda, such as in the case of the London (Ontario) Coalition Against Pesticides, a group of citizens who pressured council for a ban on cosmetic lawn-care chemicals (Belanger 2005). Others mobilize to oppose proposals deemed detrimental to member interests, such as when a neighbourhood association resists proposed land-use changes. In the policy field of emergency management, however, there is little reason for pressure groups to form because there is no obvious unifying interest or objective around which to rally. Both the costs and benefits associated with emergency management policies are diffuse, and they generally do not affect the interests of individuals, such that they might mobilize with others in support or opposition.

In the absence of public demands or organized pressure group campaigns, there is little impetus for politicians to prioritize emergency management, when it is weighed against competing agenda items (Labadie 1984: 491). Faced with scarce resources and low public interest, it is reasonable for elected officials to focus on other priorities at the expense of emergency management. Such a choice is rational: addressing issues that citizens consider important is more likely to generate popular support. Moreover, emergency planning yields few tangible, short-term rewards. The costs of emergency management activities are immediate, whereas the benefits of these efforts cannot be reaped until some time in the future, if ever (Waugh Jr. 1990: 229).

However, sometimes elected officials or influential administrators independently recognize the risk associated with emergencies and support planning efforts. Others have previous experience with emergencies and recognize the need to plan. The periodic turnover of political and administrative personnel in municipal governments can sometimes result in a more sympathetic and receptive audience for advocates promoting emergency management policy proposals.

Coupling the streams

Because emergency management suffers from low levels of public interest and political attention, significant policy change typically requires a champion who can seize a policy window and successfully couple the three streams. A policy window can open in the politics stream--when new political or administrative personnel take office, for example--or in the problem stream, such as when a disaster focuses attention on emergency planning. Each provides an opportunity for a policy entrepreneur to advocate a new course of action.

Mark Schneider and Paul Teske suggest that likely municipal policy entrepreneurs include "high-level unelected leaders, such as city managers; elected politicians, such as mayors or members of city councils; leaders of established interest groups; or creators of new groups" (1992: 741). Senior local administrators are well-positioned to define problems, connect them with policy solutions, and persuade decision-makers to choose a particular course of action. These bureaucrats wield considerable expertise--specialized knowledge and experience that gives administrators credibility in claiming that one course of action is better than another or that their preferred solution is technically superior to one that elected officials might formulate independently (Peters 1989: 196). The city manager--the chief administrative officer appointed by a council to head the local bureaucracy can also play a pivotal role in local policy-making (Ammons and Newell 1989: 46-52). Council relies on the policy advice of the city manager, which gives this individual an opportunity to shape policy choices (Plunkett 1992: 46-49). Moreover, as an intermediary between department heads and the council, the city manager can shape the decision agenda by selectively prioritizing departmental proposals and by commenting on their feasibility (Teske and Schneider 1994: 337).

The mayor is another potential policy entrepreneur. Elected at-large, the mayor represents a broader constituency than other council members do and is often the only elected municipal official who serves in a full-time capacity. The mayor is often a member of multiple council committees and is involved in the activities of various special-purpose boards and commissions and can leverage this role to promote policy issues he or she feels are important (Morgan and Watson 1992). Finally, a policy entrepreneur might emerge from outside the public sector. In this field, likely candidates include actors associated with non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross and private-sector actors interested in a particular policy proposal.

Emergency management literature provides ample evidence of policy entrepreneurship. For example, Allan Lavell describes the efforts of an influential senior administrator who was instrumental in securing earthquake protection for local hospitals (1994). In a study comparing municipal efforts to mitigate earthquake risks, Robert Wood concludes that policy choices are influenced by the presence of an entrepreneurial senior administrator, such as a city manager (2004). Richard Olson and Robert Olson describe the leadership of the mayor in securing seismic retrofitting for buildings following an earthquake in Oroville, California (1994). Finally, comparing a number of Canadian municipalities, Joseph Scanlon concludes that an active and supportive mayor can facilitate more comprehensive local emergency planning (1996).

The article has thus far reviewed the key elements of the Multiple Streams framework and has applied them to municipal emergency management. The next section provides an account of emergency management policy-making in Sarnia, Ontario, focusing on a specific decision opportunity that resulted in policy change. The narrative draws on research I conducted in 2006 and is offered to illustrate the value of the MS framework in analysing municipal policy choices.

Emergency management in Sarnia, Ontario

The City of Sarnia is located at the western edge of southern Ontario, situated along the St. Clair River, on the south shore of Lake Huron. It is a mid-sized city, with a population of about 71,000 and a land area of approximately 165 square kilometres. Stretching across the St. Clair River are the twin expanses of the Blue Water Bridge, which connect Sarnia to Port Huron, Michigan. It is Ontario's second busiest international border crossing for commercial traffic: more than 6,000 trucks cross on a busy day. The southwestern portion of the city is home to "Chemical Valley," one of the largest clusters of chemical manufacturing facilities in Canada. The industry is vital to the regional economy but is also a source of significant risk and is thus a concern for emergency planners.

The problem stream

The tightly clustered chemical production facilities in Sarnia seem a stark reminder of the importance of emergency planning. Indeed, the city has faced a number of significant risks associated with the chemical industry, including fires, explosions and toxic releases. But although statistics are available concerning the number and frequency of incidents at the plants, citizens have generally not regarded these as indicators of a problem warranting immediate government intervention. When asked what should be prioritized by council, citizens have cited issues such as the quality of local health care, tourism and economic diversification, but not better-quality emergency management (Rowland 2004).

Sarnia's emergency planners have periodically organized disaster simulation exercises that put plans and procedures to the test. Lessons learned from these drills have provided valuable feedback for adjusting practices or formulating new policy proposals. The emergency planners know that they face a significant hurdle in securing the political approval and resources necessary to implement these proposals. They also know that windows of opportunity occasionally arise in which decision-makers are more receptive, and they are sensitive to such shifts in political interest. As illustrated below, a focusing event can create the conditions conducive to policy change.
   As the problem, policy and political streams began to
   converge, a policy entrepreneur seized the resulting policy

The policy stream

At the time of the study, Sarnia's emergency management policies were administered by Mr. Cal Gardner, a full-time emergency management coordinator stationed in the police department (interviewed 13 July 2006). Mr. Gardner had been an active member of the emergency management policy community. He was one of the founding members of the Ontario Association of Emergency Managers, a professional association of practitioners.

He had long championed the idea of an "all-channel alert" system--a national warning system equipped to interrupt television broadcasting in order to transmit hazard warnings--and he had frequently appeared before commissions and hearings on this issue. He regularly participated in regional and national events related to emergency management, which offered periodic opportunities to discuss problems and solutions with colleagues from other jurisdictions. Mr. Gardner spent much of his time meeting with interested community stakeholders to assess their interests and gather ideas for program improvement. These ideas were then discussed and debated by an emergency management program committee, which included senior police and fire officials and representatives of departments such as community services and engineering and public works. It was from this local policy network that specific proposals arose.

Policy windows are short-lived, as attention is fleeting and many other problems compete for decision-makers" time and resources

The politics stream

Interviewees in Sarnia reported that, although citizens had a general concern about the risks posed by the chemical industry and other hazards, they showed little interest in emergency management. Despite extensive public education efforts and considerable media coverage regarding the risks facing the city, officials reported that most citizens were not even aware of the city's emergency planning. Furthermore, while there were no organized pressure groups lobbying city council to invest resources in emergency management, there were several who demanded reduced municipal spending in order to lower property taxes. Seemingly every year, the city's proposed budget drew criticism from pressure groups such as the Coalition of Sarnia Taxpayers (COST) and Sarnia Taxpayers Overtaxation Protection (STOP), which demanded that municipal spending be curbed (Bowen 2004; Dobson 2002b).

Elected officials in Sarnia have generally been supportive of emergency management, indicated by a modest sum that has been budgeted for the city's program in past years. Still, because the time of councillors is scarce, and due to the many other pressing issues on the agenda, securing an authoritative decision on a policy proposal required skilful marketing and manipulation by the emergency planners. The political activity surrounding the development of Sarnia's siren warning system warrants special attention, as it illustrates how a focusing event can temporarily raise the salience of a policy issue, creating a window of opportunity for policy change.

Focusing event, policy window and coupling

On 10 December 2000, a chemical vapour cloud drifted over Sarnia and settled in the southwest of the city. People were sickened as they breathed the fumes; panicked residents called city hall demanding information (Mathewson 2000b). Afterward, residents complained in the media that they had not been warned. This attracted the attention of Mayor Mike Bradley, who initially laid the blame on the provincial government, arguing that the Ministry of Environment should have been monitoring the chemical plants (Mathewson 2000a). Meanwhile, Mr. Gardner leveraged the heightened attention generated by this focusing event to bring forward a proposal for a city-wide emergency warning system, an idea that had been debated and endorsed by the local policy network. The proposal sought $100,000 to purchase and instal four sirens in the city's south end, which could be activated to notify residents of chemical releases or other hazardous conditions (Dobson 2001e). The idea was quickly picked up by the local media. The newspaper reported on the success of siren warning systems in other municipalities (Dobson 2001b) and an editorial asserted that "the first obligation that Sarnia's municipal government has to its constituents is to provide a reasonably safe place to live" (The Observer 2001: A4).

Council was nearly convinced to allocate the siren money in the 2001 budget, but then decided to eliminate a number of discretionary items, including the sirens (Dobson 2001c). The proposal had generated public and political support, however (Poirier 2001). To maintain the momentum, Mr. Gardner invited a television crew to the city's Emergency Operations Centre, where he used a large planning map to point out the most vulnerable areas and the optimal sites for the sirens (Robinet 2001). For a few months, he shuttled between interested stakeholders to discuss alternative arrangements. The discussion 'generated significant debate over who should pay for the sirens, but no alternatives to a warning system were seriously considered. Mr. Gardner eventually brokered a four-siren, $100,000 cost-sharing agreement between the chemical companies and the municipality (Dobson 2001d). Successfully reconciling the competing interests is a testament to Mr. Gardner's skilful policy entrepreneurship because some industrial actors felt strongly that a public warning system should be solely a municipal expenditure, some municipal leaders suggested that the sirens should be funded completely by industry, and both sides felt that the provincial government should contribute (Chang 2001). City council allocated $50,000 for the project (Dobson 2001a), and the sirens were installed in January 2002 (Dobson 2002c).


This brief account of emergency management in Sarnia illustrates the utility of the Multiple Streams framework for examining and explaining public policy choices in the local political system. The framework calls attention to specific actors and interests involved in policy-making and provides a persuasive explanation of the policy-making process. As in other municipalities, emergency management in Sarnia normally generated little public and political interest. Citizens and business owners had other concerns, and politicians faced many pressing problems. As such, those responsible for Sarnia's emergency management program competed for resources and the attention of decision-makers.

The December 2000 chemical release was a focusing event that attracted the attention of citizens and politicians in Sarnia and temporarily raised the salience of emergency measures relative to other issues on the policy agenda. As the problem, policy and political streams began to converge, a policy entrepreneur seized the resulting policy window. This attempt was successful, and the proposal designed earlier by the members of the expert policy network was firmly entrenched on the decision agenda. Once the proposal was under active consideration, the policy entrepreneur launched a persuasion campaign using the local media, and the siren idea was eventually adopted by the council.

Policy windows are short-lived, as attention is fleeting and many other problems compete for decision-makers' time and resources. For instance, in addition to the warning sirens that were installed in south Sarnia, it was originally intended that three more would be installed in the north end in 2002. The industrial partners agreed to contribute half the funds for this phase, and the council was expected to pay the remainder. In preparing the 2002 budget, however, council prioritized other issues and decided that Phase II for the sirens would not proceed (Dobson 2002a). Attention had faded, interest had waned, and emergency management was again relegated to the periphery.


Planning for emergencies is an important municipal government responsibility, but policy-makers in this field must overcome considerable barriers in order to secure political support and resources for policy proposals. Faced with a disinterested public and many competing demands on the time and attention of decision-makers, advocates must be ready to take advantage of the small windows of opportunity that arise to promote policy solutions. Policy windows are opened in a number of ways, but emergencies and disasters--focusing events in the problem stream--appear to be the primary means by which attention comes to be focused on emergency management.

Explaining how and why municipal governments make the policy choices they do requires analysis of problem recognition and definition, agenda-setting, policy formulation and decision-making. The Multiple Streams framework provides guidance in analysing these elements, offering a logical and compelling explanation of policy choices. Although the framework was originally formulated to explain national policy-making, I have demonstrated its applicability to municipal governments as well.


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(1) Public opinion is actually part of a broader concept that Kingdon refers to as the "national mood," meaning a general climate of opinion among the population that promotes some issues to the top of the agenda and restrains others from rising to prominence (2003: 146-49).

The author is assistant professor of public administration and local government, Department of Political Science, University of Windsor. He acknowledges with gratitude the helpful comments and suggestions made by the Journal Editor and anonymous reviewers.
Figure 1. Multiple Streams Framework--Key Concepts

Concept               Explanation

Indicator             Measure of problem severity suggesting
                      government intervention is necessary or

Focusing event        Unexpected event that rapidly focuses public
                      and political attention on a problem, often
                      heightened by the media

Feedback              Information received through formal program
                      evaluation or public complaints that indicates
                      a problem requiring attention

Policy solution       Proposal endorsed by the policy community that
                      is technically feasible and compatible with the
                      dominant values of specialists in the policy

Public opinion        A general belief or sentiment among citizens
                      concerning the need for or desirability of
                      public intervention in response to a problem

Pressure group        Organization of individuals with similar
                      interests that seeks to influence public policy

Personnel turnover    Periodic replacement of key political or
                      administrative actors

Policy entrepreneur   Skilled policy advocate with resources and
                      access to decision-makers

Policy window         Short opportunity for policy entrepreneur to
                      persuade receptive decision-makers to adopt a
                      previously formulated solution to a problem

Coupling              Effort by policy entrepreneur to connect a
                      policy solution with a problem, under
                      favourable political circumstances
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Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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