Politics of the Policyscape

  • Mallory E. SoRelleEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2532-1


Public Policy Social Security Interest Group Political Institution Ordinary Citizen 
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A political landscape in which policies created in the past become durable institutions that shape the future politics of policymakers, organized interests, and citizens


Creating public policy is one of the primary ways in which the state carries out the task of governing. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a great deal of attention has been paid to understanding how different political factors shape the public policies that are passed at a particular time and in a particular place. But public policies are not simply a product of politics. Once enacted, public policies – especially those that become enduring features of the political landscape – also have the ability to reshape future politics in important ways. Policies can influence the agendas and actions of both individual lawmakers and political parties. Policies can create or dismantle government agencies, commissions, and departments. Policies can affect the resources and political activities of organized interest groups. Policies can even shape the political preferences and behavior of ordinary citizens.

The following sections explore the dynamics of the so-called policyscape – the tapestry of public policies that, once created, shape the future politics of policymakers, organized interests, and citizens. This entry begins by explaining how public policies function as political institutions. Next, it explores how the policyscape influences the political preferences and behaviors of three main groups of political actors: lawmakers, interest groups, and citizens. Finally, it addresses the importance of policy maintenance and some of the obstacles to achieving it.

Public Policies as Political Institutions

A political institution determines the “rules of the game” by which political actors must play. Political actors make strategic decisions based on these institutional constraints, and when new institutions emerge or when existing institutions change, the behavior of political actors will have to adapt to those developments. Over time, however, responding to the constraints of political institutions can become increasingly challenging. Once established, political institutions become part of the landscape upon which politics plays out, so politicians are rarely able to operate from a clean slate. Instead, political actors must contend with progressively more complex – and sometimes contradictory – institutional arrangements. These institutions are often created in a piecemeal fashion, layering new rules atop existing ones.

Political institutions are critically important to the political process, making them an obvious target for scholarly enquiry. Most prominent among the political institutions studied by social scientists are constitutional arrangements, electoral systems, and major branches of government (e.g., legislative, executive, bureaucratic, and judicial institutions). For many years, public policies were left out of the study of institutions, treated instead simply as institutional outputs. But over the last two decades, it has become increasingly accepted to consider policies, particularly those that become enduring features of a state’s political scene, as institutions in their own right.

Public policies mirror the features of other types of political institutions: once established, policies create rules and incentives that political actors must contend with moving forward. And as with other political institutions, once a major policy is enacted for a particular issue, lawmakers must confront that policy any time they seek to engage in future legislative activity in the same area. Paul Pierson summed up this phenomenon in his seminal 1994 work on welfare state retrenchment arguing, “today’s policymakers must operate in an environment fundamentally conditioned by policies inherited from the past” (p. 9). Scholars have used the term “policy state” to capture the idea that public policies serve as political institutions that structure subsequent politics. More recently, Suzanne Mettler coined the term “policyscape” to refer to a political landscape that is increasingly cluttered with existing policy programs that influence the preferences and behaviors of a variety of political actors, including policymakers, interest groups, and citizens (2016).

How the Policyscape Shapes Politics

Public policies are expected to create material or procedural changes in a specific issue area – for example, by introducing new drug sentencing requirements or allocating funds to build new bridges; however, a growing cohort of scholars have embraced the idea that new public policies can also create political changes. Through their design and implementation, policies have the power to generate what Theda Skocpol called “feedback effects” (1992). That is, once enacted, a public policy can reshape the preferences and actions of policymakers, interest groups, and citizens in several important ways (see Mettler and SoRelle 2014 for more in depth discussion of the following mechanisms).


Once enacted, a new public policy can shape the political agenda, future policymaking activity, and day-to-day governing of policymakers – both elected officials and bureaucrats – in several interconnected ways. Public policies influence the political agenda of both individual legislators and political parties by creating constituent expectations about when and how the state will act in a particular domain. Once a new program is created, it sets the public’s expectations that government should be involved in the particular policy area. Not only do ordinary citizens come to view certain issues as requiring government intervention, but policies that were forged by a particular political party often become associated with that party. The policy, and ideas for future amendments to it, becomes part of a party’s political platform and can mobilize partisans in support of or opposition to future reform efforts. Policies can also affect the timing with which issues emerge on the political agenda. If, for example, a policy has a sunset clause after which it is no longer in effect unless reauthorized by legislators, or perhaps funding runs out after a certain date unless legislators extend it, the policy has already set into motion a deadline by which it must reappear on the legislative agenda.

In addition to shaping the political agenda, public policies also constrain future attempts to pass legislation in a number of ways. Perhaps most significantly, policies demand the allocation of resources for their implementation. Not only does this set a precedent for future budgets, but assigning resources to one area necessarily reduces the amount that can be spent in another. As the policyscape becomes increasingly cluttered, more and more resources are committed to maintaining existing programs. These resource constraints limit a government’s flexibility to implement new programs in the future.

Existing policies also shape the alternatives that are considered when lawmakers seek to enact new legislation for a particular issue. The policyscape presents elected officials with an existing set of guidelines that they must grapple with when attempting to make policy. As a result, policymakers today are rarely able to design the most efficient or effective program from the ground up. Instead, tweaking the existing policy infrastructure often serves as the more realistic starting point for discussions of reform. Not only does this limit the types of solutions that can be adopted for a particular policy problem, but it also encourages incremental, rather than wholesale, policy change.

Finally, new policies often generate new organizational entities and operational procedures for the purpose of implementation, each with the potential to structure politics moving forward. Whether mandating the establishment of a new executive agency or a temporary commission, policies frequently create entire infrastructures dedicated to their administration and implementation. In doing so, a tremendous amount of resources are invested both in the creation of the new agency and its ongoing staffing and operations. Bureaucrats who run new agencies also become politically invested in the preservation of the existing policy program because their very livelihoods depend on either maintaining or expanding the status quo. When policies create costly infrastructure manned by politically invested personnel, elected officials face a doubly difficult task in their attempts to reform existing programs. Dismantling and rebuilding a new administrative infrastructure is not only extremely costly in monetary terms, but it requires fighting against the political power of an established agency – often one that has formed collaborative relationships with the constituents it oversees who can bring their own resources to bear to prevent legislators from undoing the existing policy arrangement.

In each of these ways, the policyscape influences the strategic future behavior of policymakers. But those who make and implement public policy are only one subset of actors whose preferences and actions are affected by the policyscape.

Interest Groups

Organized interest groups are another. Professional advocacy groups have proliferated since the 1960s, and many of them have emerged as a direct result of government policy. Public policies have the ability to create new constituent groups with incentives to organize in order to preserve or expand their benefits. The visibility and complexity of policy benefits (or costs) can also shape which types of groups emerge to support a particular set of policies. For example, some public policies are highly complex and administered in ways that obscure government’s role in their creation and implementation. The average citizen is unlikely to organize around a policy that they can neither see nor understand, but industries that stand to profit (or lose) from these policies certainly have the resources and expertise to pay attention to them. As a result, complex regulations that aren’t highly visible may lead to the creation of corporate interest groups but not public interest groups. By contrast, policies that provide highly visible benefits to ordinary citizens are much more likely to give rise to public interest groups.

The end result is that the policyscape shapes the types of groups that emerge to engage in future political contestation around a specific program. Some policies may give rise to a more diverse, representative array of organized interests that are capable of influencing future policy reforms, while others privilege the organization of the most resource-rich. The composition of organized lobbying that results from this phenomenon has the capacity to shape the democratic character of future policy reforms.


Finally, citizens themselves are affected by the policyscape in several ways. Perhaps most obviously, policies that provide benefits to citizens also give them incentives to support the maintenance and expansion of those benefits in the future. As larger numbers of people benefit from a policy, it can be increasingly challenging to remove or fundamentally restructure that policy without angering constituents. In this way, the policyscape can shape people’s preferences for or against a particular policy program as well as the likelihood that they are willing to take action in support of those preferences.

Providing resources to people also shapes their political action in a second way. People with greater socioeconomic status – including those with more education, income, and other related resources – are more likely to participate in political and civic activity broadly construed. So when policies increase a person’s resources, for example, by providing them with access to educational opportunities or raising the minimum wage, that policy is indirectly creating conditions for increased political engagement among the beneficiaries.

But public policies influence ordinary citizens’ politics in two less obvious ways as well. First, public policies can teach people lessons about their own political efficacy and citizenship, affecting how they engage in political activity. When policies are created, decisions about whom they apply to create what Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram call “target populations” (1993). By creating target populations, public policies define who is a member of a particular group and who is not. They also provide a government endorsement of those groups who are worthy of benefits and those who are in need of punitive measures to “correct” their behavior in some way. The language and remedy of a particular policy can ascribe norms to a target population that are potentially embraced both by beneficiaries and the wider public. The policyscape can, therefore, influence how people see themselves and the relative value of their citizenship as well as influencing how society, more broadly, evaluates a particular group.

Beyond creating and dispersing norms about a particular group’s identity, the implementation of a particular policy can also teach beneficiaries lessons about the relative worth of their citizenship. For many people, interactions with various disbursement or oversight agencies serve as their main, and frequently their only, direct experience with government. As a result, interactions with these agencies can operate as a proxy for government as a whole. When people have positive experiences with the implementation of a public policy, they may feel valued and respected by government. Conversely, when people have frustrating or negative experiences with the implementation of a policy, they may feel that government does not value them enough to treat them well. These assessments have been found to translate into people’s willingness to participate in politics in predictable ways: those who feel valued in their interactions with the policyscape have a greater sense of political efficacy and an increased likelihood of engaging in political activity; those who feel undervalued retreat from the political realm.

Interactions with the policyscape can also shape citizens’ evaluations of government efficacy, with consequences for their political engagement. People who experience excessive red tape or encounter problems receiving policy benefits may come away with a negative evaluation of the state’s ability to govern. When that happens, citizens may be less supportive of future policy proposals designed to expand government intervention in a particular venue. Having a particularly positive experience with a government program can produce the opposite effect. More recently, scholars have also found that public policies administered without an obvious government presence can also diminish people’s preferences for government involvement on a particular issue.

Social Security: A Case Study

US Social Security policy provides a good case to examine each of these dynamics in action. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the original Social Security Act into law in 1935. Initially envisioned as a program to provide old-age insurance, the policy has been amended over the years to extend benefits to other groups as well, including widows and dependents. Social Security is credited with keeping nearly a quarter of elderly Americans out of poverty, but its funding structure is becoming increasingly unsustainable as the potential number of beneficiaries outpaces the number of people whose payroll taxes support the program.

Since its enactment, Social Security has undoubtedly reshaped the political behavior of policymakers. It has become a landmark piece of legislation associated with the Democratic Party, and most subsequent proposals to expand or reform the program have divided along partisan lines. The presence of the existing policy institution has also shaped the alternatives that policymakers consider. Rather than fundamentally reimaging the whole approach to old-age insurance – a tactic that has been dead on arrival whenever policymakers raise the possibility – attempts to reform the program to accommodate its rising costs frequently revolve around incremental revisions, for example, changing the age at which beneficiaries can receive payments. The resource constraints imposed by the program – Social Security accounted for more than one third of all US government expenditures in 2013 – also restrict the ability of policymakers to consider enacting new policy programs that would require significant expenditures. Finally, Social Security created an enormous physical and personnel infrastructure to administer it. To dismantle the program now would not only waste the resources already sunk into that infrastructure, but it would also affect the jobs of more than 60,000 people working in more than 1,000 offices scattered across the nation.

Passage of the Social Security Act also shaped the subsequent behavior of organized interest groups. New groups, like the National Committee to Preserve Social Security, emerged, and other interest groups, like AARP, would eventually allocate substantial resources to lobby in support of maintaining and expanding existing benefits. On the other side of the political aisle, interest groups representing the financial industry, which would benefit if social security were privatized, and other conservative coalitions have dedicated time and money to lobbying for benefit reductions and other reforms designed to reduce government expenditures for the program. In total, the Center for Responsive Politics, a lobbying watchdog group, identifies over 600 groups that have lobbied on the issue of social security since 2006.

Of course, a substantial part of that lobbying effort has mobilized Social Security beneficiaries. The policy identified a target population of recipients who have coalesced to form a powerful constituency group to support the maintenance and extension of the existing program – something its proponents intended. Social Security is funded with a payroll tax, so recipients feel as though they are receiving a benefit they have earned and are willing to mobilize to keep receiving their deserved payments. President Roosevelt anticipated this reaction to the policy’s design, famously explaining, “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Social Security provides an excellent example of the policyscape at work. Not only has the presence of this policy fundamentally reshaped subsequent politics surrounding the issue of old-age insurance, but it also highlights the durability of policies over time. When policies establish administrative structures, incentivize organized interest groups, and empower ordinary citizens to support them, programs become enduring features of the political landscape. As the policyscape becomes littered with more and more permanent programs, lawmakers must devote increasing time to policy upkeep, or maintenance, in order to make sure these policies continue to fulfill their intended missions in a changing world.

The Problem of Policy Maintenance

All political institutions require occasional maintenance to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to without creating unintended consequences. Public policies are no exception. Policies passed in a specific historical moment may eventually require maintenance for several reasons. The way a particular policy is implemented may produce some unintended repercussions that lawmakers feel the need to eliminate. The population of a country may change in ways that render existing policies either unable to accomplish their goals or unsustainable in their current form. Better technology or access to new information may allow for policy solutions that were impossible to imagine in previous eras but that would provide a more efficient solution. The state may also encounter crises that require the implementation of radical new approaches, or perhaps the diversion of resources to other areas, to solve the emergent problem. All of these possibilities contribute to the need for ongoing policy upkeep, but maintaining an increasingly complex policyscape can be a challenge for two major reasons.

First, when policies reshape politics along all of the pathways discussed in the previous section, those policies become path dependent, or self-reinforcing. It is increasingly costly, in both monetary and political terms, to change course once a particular policy is adopted. Political legacies are attached to the preservation of the existing program. Interest groups and bureaucrats fight to maintain and expand programs. And citizens themselves become devoted to policies that benefit them, increasing their willingness to punish policymakers who attempt to scale back or fundamentally change those benefits. As more and more policies come into being, legislators face increased political pressure to sustain them. In many ways, the path-dependent nature of the policyscape makes governing a much less flexible and more challenging enterprise than that faced by lawmakers in previous eras.

The second potential challenge to the successful maintenance of the policyscape is that the political context may change in ways that make it difficult to revisit or reform policies in need of upkeep. An excellent example of this is occurring in the USA today. Since the 1970s, partisan polarization – largely driven by an extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party – has increased dramatically. Political moderates in the federal legislature have become largely extinct, making the distance between the two parties bigger than it has been in a century. The growing polarization of the two parties has led to a virtual standstill of policymaking operations. With the two sides increasingly unable to come to agreement on policy reforms, Congress has enacted fewer and fewer laws with each passing legislative session. Policy maintenance has been one of the major casualties. In the case of Social Security, despite a clear need for policy maintenance to grapple with the potential funding shortfall, Congress hasn’t enacted major reform since 1983 – more than three decades ago. The same trend can be seen for a number of other major policy programs as well. Over the past decade, lawmakers have also increasingly had to resort to short-term funding extensions to keep major programs running because agreements for longer-term reauthorizations have been impossible to reach. Whether driven by path dependence or changing political contexts, the problems associated with maintaining the policyscape have potentially significant consequences for the long-term success of governance.


The policyscape is an important political institution for any state. It has the ability to fundamentally reshape the political preferences and behaviors of a variety of political actors, including lawmakers, interest groups, and ordinary citizens. And as the policyscape grows, the task of maintaining it becomes increasingly difficult. Understanding the constituent policies that comprise a particular policyscape is necessary in order to understand the broader political dynamics for any state: What are the policy priorities? Who are the most powerful constituent groups? What are the prospects for policy reform for any given issue? These fundamental political questions cannot be sufficiently answered without considering the political effects of the policyscape.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lafayette CollegeEastonUSA