IEA Training Manual - Module 3

2.4 Understanding issue attention cycles

In preparing an impact strategy, it is important to be aware of levels of public, political and bureaucratic attention to current issues, and to the issues being explored in the assessment. Levels of attention will influence the choice of actors to engage (and the likelihood of getting their support), and how to engage them. Understanding what is on the public radar screen will also help identify where your assessment might be useful in bringing new knowledge and recommendations for action.

It has been found that for environmental risks there is generally a pattern that resembles a “classic” issue attention pattern initially identified by Downs (1972) and subsequently confirmed by many scholars (e.g., Baumgartner and Jones 1993). Social attention to global environmental risks has tended to lag years and even decades behind scientific and technical developments. At some point, it rises relatively rapidly, remaining high for a short period of time, and then drops off again (Social Learning Group 2001). In some cases, as with stratospheric ozone depletion in the United States, two such cycles in issue attention occur.

The research of the Social Learning Group suggests three phases of issue development (Figure 1). During the first phase, before the issue first achieves widespread public attention, the principal functional change is the gradual build-up of scientific and analytic capacity through research, monitoring and assessment activities. Over a long period characterized by relatively low public attention, society’s capacity to address new issues gradually accumulates within a relatively fixed group of institutions, largely determined by historical circumstances and the way the issue is perceived. It is unlikely that new institutions will become involved to a major extent with the issue during this period of low attention.

Figure 1: Phases of an issue
attention cycle (adapted from
Social Learning Group 2001).

The subsequent period of rapid rise in public attention marks a second phase in issue development. During periods of rapid rise in public and political attention to a new issue, there will be a renegotiation of leadership within already engaged institutions, and a need for new institutions will emerge. At this stage of issue evolution, it is important to recognize the need for coalitions of actors to push the issue forward. These coalitions provide the basis for a shared understanding of the problem and its possible solutions. Effective management of emerging issues will therefore encourage this coalition building rather than encouraging generally increased participation by individuals, or isolated groups of actors.

A third phase of interactions among management functions is associated with the period following the peak in public attention and continuing through the subsequent decline in attention. During this period, the linkages between the knowledge-intensive and action-intensive management functions increase in frequency and run in both directions: knowledge influences action and vice versa.

See Exercise 3.2.4 ...

A case study of the climate change issue attention cycle

The case of attention to climatic change is illustrated in Figure 2. This graph charts levels of public interest in climate change as indicated by coverage of the issue in the elite newspapers of several countries. While the graph only shows the media coverage, additional research carried out by the Social Learning Group suggests that the levels of attention accorded to climate change in the elite media correlated strongly with levels of attention shown to it at the same period in time by other actors such as parliaments, industry groups and the scientific community. The media data can thus be taken as a rough reflection of overall changes in levels of attention to global environmental risks among actors.

Of particular interest in this graph is the one- or two-year period of rapidly increasing attention, then a year or two with the issue in high profile, and finally a slow decline of public attention back to lower levels. Over sufficiently long periods, recurrent cycles of public attention are possible (possibly indicating that lower attention levels have more to do with the emergence of new priorities. or media and public fatigue, rather than a resolution to the problem).

Much as in the cases of acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change was an expert issue long before it became a public one. There was relatively little attention to climate change in the press of any arena prior to 1988, despite decades of sustained scientific work. In this case, “issue linkage” appears to have been a critical factor in getting climate change onto the agenda of the public and policy-makers. The rise of stratospheric ozone depletion to the political agenda forced a certain amount of political attention in at least some national and international arenas to the issue of global climate change.

Also important was the role of political leadership. In the late 1980s, high-ranking politicians in many of the politically powerful arenas started to speak about the need to take action regarding a global warming threat. Their attention was secured by proactive, strategic and personal efforts on the part of scientists and concerned citizens working in NGOs. This put political momentum behind scientific developments in several arenas, and the issue appears to have caught on in several of the other arenas. By 1989-1990 there was a relatively high level of attention to the issue of global climate change in the media of almost all countries.

Figure 2: Country comparison of
newspaper attention to climate change
Source: Social Learning Group 2001 

Climate change remained on the public agenda even when media attention to stratospheric ozone depletion began to decline. In the period after the data collected for Figure 2, evidence suggests that attention dropped sharply in most arenas towards the mid-1990s before rising again in the run-up to the Kyoto Conference of 1997. This might signal that once an issue receives a high level of both public interest and political support, it will remain on the bureaucratic agenda even though public interest may shift to other concerns.

For the impact strategy, it is important to be aware of where the issue that is to be assessed lies with respect to the attention cycle. If the issue is in the first phase, in which most attention to the issue is in the scientific and technical realm, the impact strategy should consider that the audience most likely to be interested in the IEA will be in this area. It will take more concerted effort to gain the attention of the general public, private and political interests. During the second phase in which there is a rapid rise of public and political attention to the issue, there is a “window of opportunity” in which the impact strategy can consider the possibilities of reframing the issue and attracting new actors to become involved in dealing with the issue. If the issue is in the third phase, where the issue is on both the scientific and political agendas and there is considerable interaction between these communities, the impact strategy will be able to address the broader communities of concerned actors, when scientific analysis, public interest and political agendas are closely linked. It is at this stage that an impact strategy may have its most obvious and immediate results. Keep in mind though, that an impact strategy developed at this stage will be ineffective. The strategy must be developed early; it will just have its greatest impact at this stage.

There is a certain inevitability that issues will recede from the attention of the general public. An impact strategy may help to:

  • mitigate the falling off of public attention by focusing on more direct engagement of target decision-makers; and
  • shorten the issue attention cycle by moving a relevant issue back into the public eye more frequently.

There will always be unexpected catastrophic events that can play a major role in tectonic shifts in public policy. In these circumstances, public interest and policy response may peak simultaneously, with pressure placed on knowledge seeking efforts for rapid response. One has only to consider, for example, the effect of the 2004 tsunami in Asia on policies to implement early warning systems. These events can have two outcomes for your own impact strategy.

  • You can seize the opportunity to relate your assessment findings with the catastrophic event. For example, in 1997, one could have tied SoE report findings on land management to the massive land-clearing fires and resulting haze blankets across Asia that led to $US1.4 billion in short-term health costs and fire damage (IISD 2002).
  • You work will be moved off the political and bureaucratic radar screen for the immediate future. You will need to complete your mandated requirements for the assessment, but continue to foster the relationships built through the process, and be ready for the time to advance the findings.

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