Persistence, Persistence, Persistence: an Interview with John W. Kingdon, author of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies

By Alicia M. Thompson
MSW, DrPH Student in Public Health Policy & Management, Anticipated 2018
UA Email: aliciamthompson@email.arizona.edu

I left my position as the Health Officer of a small local health department because it dawned on me – the only way to make lasting positive change in our communities is through policy that supports those changes. I felt I did not know enough about how policy is made to actually do it. Now, I am a doctoral student studying public health policy and management.  I am also an active member of the Health Administration (HA) Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA). When I was asked to suggest someone to interview for their April newsletter the first name that came to mind was John W. Kingdon. His book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies was required reading in one of my first doctoral classes (Public Health Advocacy). The book made an impression on me and helped me to understand how policy is made. It is one textbook that I refer back to regularly.

Agendas.Alternatives_and_PublicPolicy

What I wanted to find out from Dr. Kingdon was how does someone like myself become a policy entrepreneur? What advice could he give people who are just realizing the importance of policy and want to get more involved in its creation?  Did he have any words of wisdom on how to become a policy entrepreneur?

Right from the beginning Dr. Kingdon wanted to make sure I understood his role.  “I am a political scientist,” he said, “and study government rather than the masses. I always intended my works2-6 to be scholarly contributions and wanted them to add to the base of theory.  I didn’t intend for any of my works to be used as textbooks. They were scholarly monographs of my empirical work.” This distinction was very important to Dr. Kingdon.

Throughout Dr. Kingdon’s career he has been asked if he would consider running for office.  “I was cured of that idea very quickly,” he said, “people who are in elected positions are very, very busy and constantly running.  They have no private life. Their constituents own them.  They have no way to get away from the job.  I decided early to study policy rather than do policy.”

Yet Dr. Kingdon had the opportunity to speak with many elected officials throughout his career researching government. When asked about how he was able to achieve this he said, “There was a time when congressmen weren’t as busy as they are now.  It is harder to get access.  You have to have a connection with the person.  As a PhD student in Wisconsin for my first project I was talking to Wisconsin politicians. Then I got a position at the Brookings Institute and that opened the door. Also, you have to have a lot of persistence.  And you can’t overlook the importance of staffers.  They have the ear of the person you want to talk with. Talking with staffers is sometimes all you are going to be able to do.”

kingdon1

When asked specifically what words of wisdom he might have for us, Dr. Kingdon reiterated, “I want to preface my answer to that question by stating I am a scholar and don’t have experience ‘doing’ policy, but I have made observations of those who do policy.  Two things seem to stick out.  First, successful policy entrepreneurs have expertise and knowledge of subject matter.  Here’s an example.  We are suddenly doing something about smoking now and we are making headway. What happened? Research on 2nd hand smoke happened. Before the study came out smoking was an individual decision.  But really it was everyone’s business. The new information changed the argument! The research and expertise is critical!  In public health there are doctors and experts who will be listened to.  Zeke Emanuel is an example (http://www.ezekielemanuel.com).  Another is Kavita Patel, she started as a staffer and is now at Brookings Institute (http://www.brookings.edu/experts/patelk). The second thing is, you need to get yourself into important positions. Become staffers on the Hill.  Work under congressmen who are aligned with your expertise.  Start with getting an internship and build your career. Becoming an expert in your chosen field is really important.  One characteristic of really good policy entrepreneurs is they are very persistent.  So persistence is key. They also must by trustworthy. Self confidence is critical and that comes from their expertise.”

When Dr. Kingdon began his career he did not set out to become an expert on government, he said, “when I was first going into grad school I didn’t know where I was headed, but my family is full of academics. At the time I wasn’t really aware of what that meant. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But being surrounded by academics my whole life my family was very supportive.  My mother talked politics with me all the time. In college I had a very good set of people who I could talk politics with a lot! Bob Jervas (http://polisci.columbia.edu/people/profile/89) was at Oberlin the same time I was.” When asked what were some of the most satisfying aspects of his career Dr. Kingdon said, “having a variety of different teaching experiences and contact with the graduate students was always enriching. Being surrounded by smart and interesting people. I suppose the fact that the book is being used everywhere is quite satisfying. I was really focusing on the scholarly impact and a while back I was curious and just wanted to see how often Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies had been cited in the literature; do you know it has been cited over 14,000 times? That is a big number!  It has been surprising to me that so many other fields like public health have adopted it. Every once in a while I pick it up and read parts of it and go – that’s really good!” The book still provides an excellent description of “how issues get to be issues” and “explaining how things actually work.”

Thank you Dr. Kingdon for your scholarly works that have informed so many!  And thank you for your advice, direction and reading recommendations to those of us who have a desire to do policy!

Kingdon, John

This post has been modified from the APHA Health Administration newsletter post by the author.

Reference & Recommended Reading List

1) Quotes are from author’s personal conversation with John W. Kingdon held on February 23, 2016.

2) Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Boston: Little, Brown. 1984.

3) Kingdon, John W. Congressmen’s voting decisions. University of Michigan Press, 1989.

4) Kingdon, John W. “Politicians, self-interest, and ideas.” Reconsidering the democratic public (1993): 73-89.

5) Kingdon, John W. America the Unusual. Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

6) Kingdon, John W. Candidates for office: Beliefs and strategies. Vol. 59. Random House, 1968.

7) Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2001.

8) Axelrod, Robert. “The evolution of cooperation: revised edition.” (2006).

9) Dahl, Robert A. “A Preface to Democratic Theory: How does popular sovereignty function in America?.” (1963).

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