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Policy Entrepreneurs and Social Choice.

Michael Mintrom. 2000. Policy Entrepreneurs and Social Choice. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, Cloth $65.00; Paper $24.95, 336 pages.

School choice is one of the most controversial issues in contemporary discussions about public education in the United States. On the one hand, it is depicted as the panacea for myriad problems that plague American education. On the other hand, it is criticized because of the negative impact that it will have on public school systems across the nation. Regardless, school choice is now a prominent option, widely discussed in the debates over the future of education policy. Why has this idea become so popular? And why are school choice options discussed in so many places, even before there is any substantial evidence about their possible impact?

According to some, policy analysts are primarily responsible for the spread of school choice ideas in the United States. Members of the academic community and think tank organizations have used economic reasoning to promote the appropriate role of markets in education policy making. In Policy Entrepreneurs and Social Choice, Michael Mintrom provides an alternative explanation. More specifically, Mintrom argues that policy entrepreneurs have succeeded in shifting the public education debate away from questions of resources and their equitable distribution and toward issues of government management and accountability. As a result, citizens have been cast in the role of consumers, which in the long run may contribute to the erosion of public space. Mintrom's intention is not to judge the overall merits of school choice or the use of market-like incentives in the design of public policy. Instead, the aim of his book is to understand the nature of policy change and the role of policy entrepreneurs in this process.

Entrepreneurship is a well-developed concept in the marketplace. But prior to Mintrom's work, no one has made an effort to carefully construct a theory of policy entrepreneurship. It is dangerous to try to import a market concept into the political sphere without considerable translation. For this reason, the heart of Policy Entrepreneurs and Social Choice is the development of six characteristics of successful entrepreneurship along with examples for the school choice area. Policy entrepreneurs must be creative and insightful in seeing how a policy idea might alter the nature of the policy debate in their respective states. Social perceptiveness is an invaluable skill for political entrepreneurs because it allows them to empathize with others' views about social conditions and to not become too wrapped in their own little worlds. Social and political dexterity, which allows policy entrepreneurs to be able to mix in a variety of social and political settings in order to acquire valuable information, is a third characteristic. Policy entrepreneurs must be able to argue persuasively and to keep to the overall policy message while they tailor their arguments to different groups. They must also be strategic team builders who are able to organize coalitions in support of policy change. Finally, policy entrepreneurs must be able to translate their ideas into actions, that is they must exemplify the ability to lead by example and to translate an abstract idea into something concrete and believable.

Entrepreneurship takes place within a social context, and a rich literature exists on the necessary conditions for policy change. Among the most useful chapters in the book is chapter 2, in which Mintrom compares and contrasts different theories of policy making and policy change. Easton's systematic conception of the political system envisions policies moving through stages of agenda setting, policy formation, policy legitimation, and policy implementation toward policy impact and feedback. Lindblom's notion of incrementalism stresses the nonrational aspects of policy making and the role of proximate policy makers in the process of continuous mutual adjustment. The identification of policy streams that come together in a window of opportunity for agenda setting is Kingdon's contribution. The importance of belief systems is emphasized in Sabatier's notion of advocacy coalitions and policy change. Rational choice scholars and those who are associated with new institutionalism stress the ways in which institutions can provide incentives to encourage or impede policy change. The punctuated equilibrium model of Baumgartner and Jones, in which bursts of policy change interrupt periods of policy stability through shifts in issue definitions or images and changes in policy venues, is another approach reviewed by Mintrom. In the final chapter of his book, the author revisits each of these frameworks of policy change and suggests how his theory of entrepreneurship provides insight that builds upon and is compatible with each approach.

Mintrom's conception of entrepreneurs is embedded in economic theory. Two chapters are devoted to exploring how economists, particularly those from the Austrian school, have used entrepreneurship to describe activities of market making that can have positive as well as negative effects. The author then draws careful parallels between actions in the marketplace and what their counterparts in politics might be expected to do in market making. Throughout the book, Mintrom builds from concepts embedded in economic theory of markets to suggest that similar forces are at work in politics. For instance, noting that milieu makes a difference for economic entrepreneurs, he weaves the frameworks of Lowi and Wilson into an understanding of how context can affect receptivity to new ideas. The book profits by the author's broad command of economic, public policy, and political science literatures.

The empirical base of this book is an elite survey of educational experts in the forty-eight contiguous states. Mintrom presents a sophisticated analysis of the findings, but one that is also easy to follow and comprehend. He tests different explanations for the appearance of educational choice alternatives on agendas. The presence and action of educational entrepreneurs are found to have significant impact upon the introduction and adoption of policy change. The empirical findings also confirm the importance of policy networks and coalition building as critical resources and entrepreneurial strategies.

Throughout, Mintrom provides narrative examples to augment his statistical evidence. These illustrations make for lively and entertaining reading. However, this is not a book to turn to in order to make sense of the debate over school choice. Mintrom wisely avoids the morass of arguments about the positive and negative aspects of various school choice innovations. Policy Entrepreneurs and Social Choice is a refreshing change from the polarized literature that dominates the evaluation of the use of market-like incentives to improve school performance. The author's intent is not to study school choice for what it reveals about education but rather for what it tells us about the circumstances of policy change.

Entrepreneurship has been a relatively neglected subject in the public policy literature. Insofar as entrepreneurship has been studied, it is mostly in the context of particular case studies. Hence, it was poorly defined or viewed as a constant across political and economic contexts. Michael Mintrom's book goes a long way toward clarifying and operationalizing the importance of policy entrepreneurship. Moreover, the book departs from many mechanistic conceptions of policy change that envision a policy as a consequence of the interaction of certain economic, institutional, or ideological variables. Michael Mintrom restores to policy making an appreciation for the roles of leadership and individual motivation. Hence the book makes a valuable contribution to broader theories of public policy making, and it also provides unique insight into the spread of school choice ideas across the nation.
Helen Ingram
University of California at Irvine
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ingram, Helen
Publication:Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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