Tag Archives: Issue Attention Cycles

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 gmail.com

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

Video: Issue Attention Cycle beginner’s guide

So, a very crude (but not rude) video about the Issue Attention Cycle.  Done more for my own benefit – to nail a couple of things and get back into the video-making habit.  I’ve gotten rusty…  Comments welcome, of course…


This guy is Ibn Khaldun. He was an historian in the 14th century. He suggested that one generation of nomadic warriors might conquer a complacent city, their children might be able to defend it, but their grandchildren, soft from luxury, would be unable to defend it from a generation of nomadic warriors, whose children… you get the idea. The big wheel keeps on turning. Fast forward to 1972…

And American political scientist Anthony Downs puns on his name to produce Up and Down with Ecology: The issue attention cycle

He suggested a five stage model for, well, attention to an issue.

Stage one – he labelled the “pre-problem phase” – nobody but a few scientists or activists are much bothered

In stage two “alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm” something happens – a scandal, disaster, a book gets published – some kind of what is now called “focusing event”. And the issue does get into the newspaper, or onto the TV news,

Stage three is called “realizing the cost of significant progress” – there’s a gradual grokking of the cost of “solving” the problem

Stage four sees a “gradual decline of intense public interest” as people realise the actual costs, others get discouraged, others still feel threatened, others still bored. And anyway, other issues are newer, shinier

The final “post-problem” stage sees the issue in limbo, with occasional “spasmodic recurrences” of interest. But the level is higher than it was at the pre-problem stage, because not everyone has

It’s a beautiful, simple, intuitive heuristic. And of course, therefore, quite problematic.

Why do some issues take off and others don’t? Do issues get stuck at a particular stage, or reverse? Why? How? Are there other possible outcomes?

Mahon and Waddock (1992) produced a graph that offered different possible (non)-resolutions of an issue, with a return to apathy (the solution has ‘worked’, at least in the view of those who want it off the policy agenda), ‘confidence in solution’ and ‘failure- intensified concern).>

Bigelow et al (1993:24 ) note that “ issues may progress recursively, cycling back and forth through the stages” and warn that such issues may in fact not be resolved.

Combining issue attention cycle literature with the “greening of industry” literature, Frank Geels and Caetano Penna developed the Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model, the DILC

It delves into what different actors – those trying to push the issue up the political agenda and those trying to push it down – do within the five phases. Also – and this is crucial – what sorts of research and development might a company – or an industry – take to try to come up with a neat and de-politicising ‘techno-fix’?

So, issues – in the sense of a socially constructed worry – can come and go – while the underlying problem just builds and builds…

Does the rise of social media and Web2.0 actually change the issue attention cycle? If so, how, when, why? All good questions. Watch this space, perhaps…

All those Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model agony aunt letters in one handy place

The Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model (DILC) is a very cool heuristic for thinking about how some societal problems become issues, what industry does when the problems climb the political agenda, and how the issues are (or aren’t) ‘resolved’ – technological innovation (or lack thereof) in response to societal problems (car safety, local air pollution, climate change).  Here’s a video starring its progenitors. 

The DILC has five phases, and looks at three categories of actors in detail – those trying to get the issue onto the agenda (“activists”), those trying to keep it off/to shape the problem into a soluble issue (“industry”), and the state functionaries (elected and non-elected).

Last year I came up with the idea of each of these ideal types writing letters to an agony aunt during each of the phases, seeking her strategic advice.

Phase 1 Activists
Phase 1 Industry
Phase 1 State

Phase 2 Activists
Phase 2 Industry
Phase 2 State

Phase 3 Activists
Phase 3 Industry
Phase 3 State

Phase 4 Activists
Phase 4 Industry
Phase 4 State

Phase 5 Activists
Phase 5 Industry
Phase 5 State