“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, today’s event has been cancelled. Please remove your wagers - all bets are off.”
The phrase “all bets are off” originated in gambling, indicating that something unexpected has happened and that all money is returned to bettors. Perhaps a car backfired and spooked the horses, or the dealer accidentally flipped a card, or a patron spilled a cocktail on the craps table: whatever the cause, the game cannot continue.
Coronavirus has spilled a bitter drink across all corners of our society, and it’s unclear how to proceed. Our instinct to pause and wait for more information is a reasonable one. But for those seeking bold change, now is the time to place big bets on the issues that matter most.
The once dominant theory of pluralism imagines American policymaking as a game of tug of war. This lens sees competing interests as largely balancing each other out, with change happening smoothly by increments.
However, policy researchers have developed a new, dynamic paradigm called Punctuated Equilibrium Theory (PET) that accounts for moments of rapid change, including these insights:
Policy change occurs in short, intense bursts. PET contrasts the traditional theory of gradual change by using empirical data to demonstrate that many policy areas shift rapidly during moments of change, followed by long periods of the new status quo.
Instead of the tug of war of pluralism, the metaphor of punctuated equilibrium theory is tectonic plates, slowly shiftly out of sight. Quiet periods are interrupted by eruptions of focus on new issues and earthquakes of political activity.
Change is due more to shifts in attention than changes in belief. Political institutions resolve issues through “serial processing,” by considering problems one at a time. During times of status quo, policy debates occur out of sight between experts, such as interest groups, legislative committees, and bureaucrats. Issues can bubble up to the agenda of policymakers through the efforts of interested parties, such mobilizing activists, media coverage, and legislative hearings, or by having new groups take interest in the issue.
Decision makers tend to adopt new policies wholesale instead of blending them with existing policies. PET describes these changes as a new “policy image”: a novel viewpoint that emphasizes different values than previous ones, consisting of emotion-laden stories and supporting data.
Two factors account for this pattern of major change: decision makers have limited attention and time to spend on each agenda item, so it is extremely costly to consider the individual parts of proposals, and the stories and data that support each policy image are often irreconcilable.
Crisis often initiates periods of change. Declarations of war by the United States have generally preceded expansions in federal spending that do not completely contract during times of peace. Major social changes often followed the end of those conflicts. Scandal is also a driver of change, providing a potent symbol of what is wrong with the policies in question.
Policymakers at every level of government are dealing with two major crises at this moment: coronavirus and economic recession. “Safety” and “continuity” are two values driving the rapid policy change we’re seeing right now. The results are a number of adaptations that would have made no sense before.
For example, anyone arguing for widespread distance learning for K12 students three months ago would have sounded nuts. Now, it only seems prudent. How much will this new policy remain after the current pandemic ends?
You could argue for adaptation of distance learning on a limited basis, similar to the remote work policies that private sector employers are expected to implement permanently. The opposite opportunity also exists, to argue for the elimination of distance learning in cyber charter schools, citing lessons learned now along with those schools’ disastrous track records.
The kind of change your union wants to create isn't what matters: what counts is taking the initiative to tie those new policies into the needs of this moment, to earn the attention of a larger audience. Because waiting for the status quo to resume while the world has moved on would be a losing bet.
“Punctuated Equilibrium Theory: Explaining Stability and Change in Public Policymaking.” Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones, and Peter B. Mortensen. Theories of the Policy Process (3rd Ed.) Eds. Paul A. Sabatier and Christopher M. Weible. 2014.