Kingdon’s 3 Streams

In the marketplace of ideas, some goods are Freakshakes™, and others are Coca-Cola Life with a side of ‘The Verdict’. This phenomenon is so in business and in politics. Why? Why do some goods, and some policies, work and others don’t? John Kingdon has a theory.



I learnt about Kingdon’s theoretical framework last year in a politics course, and thought about it this week while listening to a podcast chat between Richard Fidler and John Howard. Bear with me.

Kingdon’s answer to the ‘why do some things work (Freakshakes, gun reform) and others don’t (Coca-Cola Life, marriage equality)’ question lies in his ‘3 streams’ model. Kingdon’s model has its analytical roots in the marketplace of political ideas, but I think it works equally well in commerce.

Kingdon’s 3 streams are these: the problem, the policy and the politics. Or, if you’ll allow me to freelance here, the problem, the product, and the economy . When the conditions are right in each of the three streams, the streams will ‘couple’ creating a ‘window of opportunity’. It is through this window of opportunity that products are sold and policies are accepted. If you look at the background to a failed product, or a lapsed policy, you are likely to find fault in one of the three streams.


Capitalism in heaven

Firstly, there must be a problem that needs to be solved. Whether it’s a growing intolerance for expensive and unnerving taxi rides, or the fact that some couples can marry and others cannot. Unless there is a problem, people find it difficult to buy in to a solution.

Secondly, there has to be an available solution. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of ideas fall over. We know, all too well, that cancer is a crippling problem affecting many. But unfortunately there is no permanent solution (yet). Not all problems are as insurmountable, and that is where capitalism and public policy come in. The taxi problem was solved by two app developers who may or may not even own cars (he saw the opportunity, I suppose….). And of course the available (and budget-neutral) solution to the marriage problem is legislative reform.

Thirdly, the climate must be right. 23 degrees with a slight easterly breeze… no not really but sometimes the determinants of a political or economic climate seem as illogical as that. In commerce, people must be in the right mood to buy a product. Luxury and superior goods are highly income elastic, hence the demand for lodges in Thredbo fell rapidly in tandem with the price of everyone’s BHP shares a couple of years ago. This was not the time to get into the luxury ski wear business, for example. Similarly, a political climate must be just so in order to support major reform. Thus far, the political stream has been the erroneous link in the push towards marriage reform.

The best example I can think of, when all three streams aligned, was gun reform. Clear problem. Clear solution. A political clearway. A window of opportunity.

Which brings me back to my Fidler/ Howard podcast.

So I was listening to the podcast which, if you’re still reading after reference #2 to these unglamorous characters, is genuinely a great listen. I was too young to absorb Howard 1.0, but Howard 2.0 does intrigue me. In fact I found myself wishing he had his own podcast (stranger things have happened). Perhaps I’m just dazzled by the former PM’s velveteen vocabulary  (the sooner I can recycle the phrase ‘wrongly, in my view, and historically erroneous, in my view’ to describe an event the better). But anyway.

So with Howard on the airwaves amid US election fever, there are no prizes for guessing what was on the agenda. Gun reform.

You may not remember, and I don’t, but Howard’s gun policies were, at the time, quite brazen. And they put many Akubra-shaded noses out of joint. Nonetheless, emboldened by a hefty and recent electoral mandate, bipartisan support and an arm around the public interest, change was made. 20 years later, as bullets continue to spray a shattering American dream, the Australian populous is largely united in its view that Howard made the right call. That from the darkness of Port Arthur came a beacon of light, protecting Australians from themselves, and each other, more times that we will ever have to know.

Why did it work? There was a visible problem. There was a solution. There was political and public will. A window opened and the reforms slipped through.

It is important to note that windows can be, and often are, fleeting. Had the Government waited, memories of Port Arthur may have faded and the voices of those opposing the changes may have grown louder. A shift in the political stream may have meant a de-coupling of the three streams. The window may have closed, and the opportunity would have passed us by.

Think the emissions trading scheme. The three streams were just so, but the Government chose to wait until after Copenhagen ’09 to take action. In the time that passed, political and public will shifted, and the streams decoupled. The window slammed and has yet to reopen.

Next time you wonder, why was that product such a flop? Why aren’t we a republic yet? Why don’t we have marriage equality yet? Take a look at the three streams. Find the weak link and aim all of your capitalist and campaign efforts where it matters most.

And vote 1 for John Howard the Podcast!


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