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Agenda is used in many context, including in a government. According to J. W. Kingdon, agenda...is the list of subjects or problems to which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some attention at any given time.' (Kingdon, 2011:3) However, there are many different issues that a government has to deal with everyday, whether they are the issues relating to poverty, economic performance, budgetary decision. Choosing whether an issues is more important than another is not a simple process, and definitely not something that can be decided by any individual in a government. This is because, while all issues may be as important as each other, there are many influences which may cause a certain one of them to rise up the agenda and requires the government or policy makers to prioritise such issue and take immediate action to tackle it. This essay will look into the process of agenda setting e.g. how do government decide which issues will be on agenda, in what order should they be arranged and more importantly, the factors which cause the issues to move up political agenda.
First of all, it is useful to acknowledge the actors in agenda setting process, both private and public. The elected public officials and the bureaucracy are the private actors of agenda setting.(Knill and Tosun, 2012:113) The elected public officials are prime minister, president and members of parliament. They do not only set the agenda, they are also policy makers; the people who decide which solutions is best to tackle the issues. Their power might emerge from the control they have over legislative process; in the UK, the main feature of British politics is the sovereignty of the parliament and the strong core executive, meaning the private actors or the few people who run the government have higher control over the agenda setting. The bureaucrats are the main figures in formulation and implementation process of political agenda, but they also have influence in making policies to deal with problems that may arise from the policies that the government had handed out. This is because politicians at higher positions may not have the appropriate technical knowledge. (Knill and Tosun, 2012:115) In the UK, the Westminster model allows the prime minister to enjoy the sovereign of the parliament and his power to influence very much every single aspects that forms the legislatures. Since the majority party has been given these rights and controls, it can be assumed that the public policies or the political agenda will be based on the promises and objectives of the party that is in the power. An example of this could be the parliamentary reform in 1999. The reform of the House of Lords were on the political agenda ever since Labour party came into power in 1997. In 1999, the House of Lords Act removed majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, whom were mostly Conservative-leaning. (Russell, 2010:866-867) Meg Russell suggested that there are clear motives for Labour to reform the House of Lords; the removal of hereditary peers of Conservatives leaning were only benefiting the Labour by eliminating obstacles when passing bills, it will reduce the check on power of the Blair's government and eventually strengthen the power of the Labour party. (Russell, 2010:867-868) The reforming of the House of Lords show how executives in the government can influence political agenda. In 1999, there were many issues for the government to deal with, but the Labour decided to prioritise the House of Lords reform. Therefore, whichever party won the election may also affect how political agenda is set; if the Conservatives won the 1997 election, the House of Lords reform might not have occurred.
On the other hand, the mass media and interest groups are the public actors, both of which are very powerful actors in influencing the agenda setting process. (Knill and Tosun, 2012:113) It is possible to link both factors to public opinions because all of them have very strong relationship; the media coverage affects the public perception of certain issues which then eventually causes the formation of or existing interest groups to take action in attempt to influence the government to pay attention to a certain issue over others. There are several ways that the public can push certain issues up the agenda, or at least catch the attention of policymaker; in the UK, the e-petition website provide the public to gather signatures to support certain issues, any petition with over 100,000 signatures deserves to be discussed in the parliamentary debate. This is probably one of the most viable options for the public to express the issue that is most concerned by them. Another way could be the opinion poll conducted by various research groups. Ipsos MORI, a company specialising in social and political research has conducted a research on the topic 'Most important issues facing Britain today' in 2012. From the findings it shows the public opinion on the issue of crime and violence was the major one in 2007, from mid 2008 the pattern started to change; the issue on economy became a major issue and this pattern sustained continuously till present. ("Most important issues facing Britain today", 2012) The concern over national economy was at peak in 2009-2010 linking this to the 2010 General Election which the Conservatives party did put major emphasis on the economic related policies such as budget deficit, recession and inflation. This has resulted in Labour party losing in the election and the other two formed a coalition government. Public opinion caused the economy to be the most important issue on the agenda, and that influenced their voting decision. The government must deal with the issues that the public are most concerned about because, just like the relationship with the media, the government also relies on the public for their support. Consequently, public opinion is very influential in agenda setting process.
Communication Concepts 6: Agenda Setting by J. W. Dearing and E. M. Rogers explains the relationship between mass media, public opinion and agenda setting. This includes the outline of the media-policy relationship, suggesting that the mass media often have a direct influence on the policy agenda setting process because both policy makers and media reporters rely on each other; for coverage of their proposals and sources of news, respectively. (Dearing and Rogers, 1996:74) Policy makers often have to listen to the media and respond because it plays influential role in defining public opinion. 'The mass media forces attention on certain issues. It builds up public images of political figures...' and even when 'It is not successful in telling readers what to think, it definitely is successful in telling them what to think about' (McCombs and Shaw, 1972:177) Dearing and Rogers explained this relationship even further with an example of the agenda setting in the US Senate during the period when the 1966 auto safety law was passed. The sharp rise in number of traffic deaths from 1960 to1966 resulted in the increase in the New York Times news coverage of traffic safety, forcing policy makers to pay much attention to the issue. Eventually, the auto safety law was passed, requiring redesigning of automobile and highway. (Dearing and Rogers, 1996:84-87) An example of the Arab Spring in early 2011 is also a very good one to show how mass media is used as a tool to gather the public attention and support; this eventually caused the protests against autocratic and corrupt regime to be come the top priority for the government to deal with, especially in Tunisia and Egypt; and they made it worse as they tried to stop the protests by blocking the media coverage. Therefore, policy makers (the government) are not only required to interact with the media, but also to give a satisfying response reflecting the power of the media in today's politics.
As previously mentioned, interest groups are also very important actors in agenda setting. The US has long experienced the rise in the formation of interest groups; approximately 628 active interest groups in Washington lobbying in 1942, it rose to 1180 in 1947-48 and reach 7000 organizations in 1981, suggesting their role in policy making and agenda setting also increased as well. (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993:177) One of the largest interest groups in the US is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) which consists of 39 million members. It is non profit organization, but the existence of it means the economic security for American retired persons such as comprehensive healthcare provisions and improvements in attitudes towards elderly in workplace. This reflects the role of interest groups in policy making.
Dearing and Rogers also referred to the works of J. W. Kingdon in 1984 about policy window that concluded that the problems, policies and politics is not random, but opportunistic. (Dearing and Rogers, 1996:74) Policy window is an opportunity actors in policy making process to push the attention of policy makers to the problem that is in their interests. (Kingdon, 2011:165) For a policy window to be opened, it requires a combination of circumstances; first being the indicator that shows a problem exists, for both governmental and non governmental authority, the indication of existence of a problem could be gathered from changes in the activities that they routinely monitor. (Kingdon, 2011:90) On the other hand, the problem may exist because of certain focusing event, which will be explained later. Once policy makers identified a certain condition as a problem, then there is a convergence of the solution; Kingdon called this as 'Primeval Soup' where informations and ideas float or sink in popularity. (Kingdon, 2011:116-117) The existence of problem and possible policy solution together with the favourable political climate, this creates policy window. Often, it is unpredictable when policy window will be opened, the factors that determine the existence of policy window are focusing events such as natural disasters, social outbreaks (protesting, rioting etc.) and terrorist attacks. These focusing events are also powerful in agenda setting because, while mass media plays a huge role in shaping the process, it may take time; but events such as natural disaster or terrorist attacks will require immediate actions from government, for example, immediate needs for humanitarian aids to affected areas. This may also because some issues only gain attention when a certain events happen. For example, the recent event of Tropical Storm Sandy has brought climate change back on the US political agenda.
Another focusing even that is worth looking at is the event of September 11, although it was not a natural disaster, it was an unexpected event that caused massive amount of changes to agenda setting in the USA and affected the country's politics many years after. (Birkland, 2006:31) The event of September 11 did cause a lot of changes to the way Americans think, many believed the attack by terrorists at World Trade Center created tensions and impacts in American's society in a lasting way; as for the policy makers, it definitely was not only the political issue, but also affecting the policy areas across the spectrum. (Birkland, 2006:45-46) It put the issue of international terrorism or international security on the top of the political agenda, opening a large policy window as both media and political elites were forced to change their perception of terrorism or the risk of it happening. (Birkland, 2006:33) The media such as the New York Times appeared to expand its news coverage on the topic of terrorism much more than ever; from 1990, stories on terrorism constantly received very low news coverage but from 2001 there appeared to be a very sharp rise in the coverage on the topic. (Birkland, 2006:48) Terrorism remained on the congressional agenda and expanded continuously through 2004. (Birkland, 2006:48) Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security was created following the attack on September 11, it consisted of 22 agencies functioned as one large department dealing with issues on terrorism and national security, it also involves foreign relations such as organising foreign aids to nations to prevent the conditions conductive of terrorism. (Birkland, 2006:42-43)
It is obvious that political agenda is not simple to set up. It has been shown throughout this essay that both private and public actors can be very influential when it comes to what should be on the agenda and most importantly, in which order.