Video: Issue lifecycles, a not-even-beginner’s guide

First, a public health warning. I am not yet clear enough on the distinction(s) between issue attention cycles and issue lifecycles to make this video. I’m doing it, therefore, to get Shot. Down. In. Flames. Then, if I survive the crash, I will make a – better- sequel. How’s that for dialectic and iterative?

Issue attention cycles follow attention – which fluctuates because critical events/focussing events/triggering events are usually infrequent and unpredictable, cannot be easily exploited and after a time lose their impact (dog bites man is not a news story). And journalists get tired of writing the same stories, readers of reading them. So when a new shiny issue comes along…

But the issue is now on the agendas of three key groups

a) civil society – social movement organisations and scientists, and maybe some hacks

b) corporations, an industry and their allies, who keep a watching brief

c) the state – the bureaucracy and the politicians. The latter need to be seen to be responsive, and the latter will want an ongoing policy process as a fig-leaf in case the issue blows up in their face again. They can’t afford to have been seen to be doing nothing…

So the issue has its own, slower, dynamic. As Flanagan and Uyarra, (2016: 182) point out – “Policy dynamics will interact with other relevant dynamics – electoral, budget and planning cycles, economic cycles, organisational life cycles – each with their own logic and imperatives”

It will bimble along, as advocacy coalitions slowly form, policy-subsystems get owned, problem, politics and policy streams trickle each on their merry way.

There will be flare-ups – issue entrepreneurs get lucky, smart or both. New disasters happen, followed by marches or petitions. Reports that were commissioned do indeed get written, and not ALL of them can be released at 5pm on a Friday afternoon just before Christmas….

Politicians are sometimes forced by coalition partners in knife-edge minority governments to NOT keep punting an issue into the long grass.

Meanwhile, corporations are thinking about which stakeholders to use as human shields, and perhaps even cleaning up their act, if that is the smarter and cheaper thing to do. And don’t be forgetting – corporations and industries always have a LOT on their plates – As Clark et al (2015: 5) put it. “Issue life cycle literature addresses two important aspects of how issues are managed : the cumulative effects of a single issue over time and the cumulative effect of multiple issues affecting the same firm over time.”

In all this, remember, the existence of a policy process enables politicians etc to say that matters are indeed ‘in hand’ and that there’s “nothing to see here”.

Some issues just fade away – “solved” unintentionally by technological, demographic or social changes. Others flare up occasionally a bit like herpes. Others become chronic, and slowly fatal. Like drug-resistant tuberculosis; Well, HELLO climate change.

comments? Please email me at marcmywords at

Those references

Clark, C. Bryant, A. and Griffin, J. 2015. Firm Engagement and Social Issue Salience, Consensus and Contestation. Business & Society, doi:10.1177/0007650315613966

Flanagan, K., & Uyarra, E. 2016. Four dangers in innovation policy studies – and how to avoid them. Industry and Innovation. DOI:10.1080/13662716.2016.1146126. Publication link: 31cea8d3-1f0b-4027-ac0a-bec6587267ab

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