A Framework of Factors that Affect Political Support

Advocacy Evaluation Update | 2010-08

This article presents a framework developed by Jeremy Shiffman that helps to explain why some issues receive political attention and support while others do not. The framework can be used to help guide evaluations to examine the success of advocacy efforts trying to build political support on policy issues.

Why do some issues receive priority attention from political leaders while others receive very little? Why do global issues like child immunization and HIV/AIDS garner considerable attention and resources at certain points in time, while others like diarrheal diseases and pneumonia receive much less attention even though they are also high-burden issues?

Political scientist Jeremy Shiffman developed a framework to help address these questions. The framework is grounded in social constructionism, a paradigm that focuses on how reality is created through social interaction.

Framework of Factors that Shape Political Priority

According to the framework, three factors help to explain the amount of attention that an issue receives: (1) the actors involved, (2) the narrative they use, (3) and the landscape or environment they face. Issues are more likely to attract support if they exhibit certain features associated with these factors.

Table 1: Framework of Factors that Shape Political Priority
Factors Key Features
Actors: The individuals and organizations concerned with the issue
  1. Networks
  2. Guiding institutions
Narrative: The story actors tell about the issue
  1. Category construction
  2. Severity
  3. Tractability
  4. Emotional resonance
Landscape: The environment actors face
  1. Other actors
  2. Policy windows

Actors are the individuals and organizations that share a concern with the issue. They might include, for example, researchers, advocates, policymakers, nonprofits, funders, or governments.

Two features affect the strength of actors. The first is the presence of networks that connect actors on issues and help to give them cohesion, authority, and power. The second is the existence of effective guiding institutions or formal organizations with the authority and ability to lead strong and sustainable initiatives.

The quality of the narrative created around the issues is the second influencing factor. It addresses how effective the issue’s “framing” is; that is, the way in which actors understand and portray the issue. An issue can be framed in multiple ways. For instance, HIV/AIDS has been framed as a public health problem, a development issue, a humanitarian crisis, and a security threat. Some frames resonate more than others, especially for different audiences.

Four features influence a narrative’s effectiveness. Category construction refers to how the boundaries of a problem are defined. Severity is the extent to which a problem is perceived as harmful, relative to other problems. Policymakers are more likely to perceive problems that cause significant harm as more serious and thus worthy of attention than those that do not. Tractability is whether a problem is perceived as surmountable. This may be influenced by whether the proposed means of addressing the problem are clearly explained, cost-effective/inexpensive, backed by scientific evidence, and simple to implement. Finally, emotional resonance is the extent to which a problem elicits emotional or affective responses like empathy or fear. These four features are not necessarily inherent to problems; actors can frame issues in ways that affect how they are perceived.

Finally, landscape is the environment in which actors operate. Actors may have little control over these contextual factors, but they must take them into account if they wish to develop effective strategies. Many elements of political context matter, but two are key. First is the presence of other actors who are not working on the issue but are inclined to either oppose or support the issue. The second is the occurrence of policy windows, or moments in time when conditions align favorably for an issue, presenting advocates with particularly strong opportunities to reach political leaders. If policy windows open, political support is more likely to follow.

Application of the Framework

Shiffman has used the qualitative method of process tracing to test the framework with several global health issues. For example, he examined the case of newborn survival and the dramatic rise in interest in this issue over the last decade. Prior to 2000, few international organizations and governments paid attention to this issue in spite of the fact that each year four million babies around the world were dying during their first month of life. His research revealed that the framework helped to explain the substantial increase in attention.

Specifically, by 2010, the actors involved with newborn survival had developed a strong network and were being led by powerful guiding institutions. The narrative on newborn survival had also shifted. Actors were able to create a compelling narrative that successfully changed perceptions on the issue’s severity, tractability, and importance. Better rates of newborn survival were now seen as achievable through inexpensive interventions. Newborn survival was also seen as essential to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (particularly Goal 4 on reducing child mortality). In terms of the landscape, actors were able to convince new groups to embrace the issue, and growing numbers of low-income countries began developing programs to address the problem.

The framework also identified issues that actors must address to ensure that newborn survival receives more of the attention and resources it deserves. In terms of the narrative, actors must continue attempting to shift the perception in many low-income contexts that newborn mortality is solvable and not simply a fact of life. In terms of the landscape, institutionalizing attention on newborn survival in countries that have high neonatal mortality rates remains a challenge. Finally, in terms of the actors themselves, strengthening the links between the different networks concerned with newborn survival, maternal health, and child survival remains both a challenge and a priority.

Conclusion

This framework argues that the reasons that some issues receive political attention and others do not is a function of how issues are socially constructed by the actors who care about them, rather than as a function of some hard and objective reality. The framework does not suggest, however, that all of the factors and features it identifies are necessary or sufficient for achieving political support. In fact, some issues with low political priority possess many of these characteristics while others with significant political attention lack several. However, existing research suggests that, other things being equal, the presence of these factors enhances the likelihood that an issue will receive attention and action from political leaders.

This framework and its application is described more fully in: Shiffman, J. (2009). A social explanation for the rise and fall of global health issues. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 87, 608-613, and Shiffman, J. (2010). Issue ascendance in global health: The case of newborn survival. Copy available from the author.

Jeremy Shiffman, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public Affairs at American University. Email: jrshiffm@maxwell.syr.edu.

Author Name: 
Julia Coffman