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The Advocacy Coalition Framework

Sabatier fails to identify an adequate explanation of policy change and only provides a good yet rather descriptive analysis of what the environmental coalition at Lake Tahoe achieved. Policy cores are the fundamental glue of coalitions because they represent basic normative and empirical commitments13 and this perhaps places too much emphasis, especially in environmental policy, on actors’ beliefs being all too readily swayed from external factors. Sabatier has overemphasised the effects of exogenous shocks in determining the trajectory of policy ideas and not enough labour on explaining ideas changing policy itself.

Thus so far ACF falls foul to being far too descriptive and failing to incorporate ideas on policy formulation and how they are changed. If the stability of ACF is disrupted by exogenous shocks, an example for the purpose of this essay extreme weather phenomena, this according to Sabatier, can take up to ten or more years. The incompleteness of the ACF arises immediately as there is no hypothesis to activate coalitions earlier than the ‘stable’ ten year period.

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Often climate policy in particular needs to be far more pre-emptive and reactive, rather than awaiting a shock that forces a policy through hastily. Environmental issues attract interest groups, campaigners and supporters, businesses, government actors and others who are likely to form coalitions, need to constantly evolve and form coalitions and are perhaps more highly dependent on deep cores beliefs first and foremost, rather than variable policy core beliefs further down the line.

The importance of policy- oriented learning is another aspect of ACF which is overly described, yet seldom explained.

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If indeed one of the main causes of ideas evolving is policy oriented learning and that such learning is instrumental in affecting policy over time, simultaneously there is a resistance to change deep and policy core beliefs. Therefore policy oriented learning is expected to change secondary aspects of a coalition’s belief system and changes to policy sore are once again reliant solely upon exogenous shocks14.

The external factors hypothesis as mentioned above, can also have a noticeable defect in addressing extreme environmental incidents or rare hazardous weather conditions which may place impetus upon policy change, Sabatier does not reflect on what happens to policy ideas if these exogenous shocks do not change policy core beliefs. ACF theory renders itself vulnerable in times of policy change occurs yet exogenous factors have not changed belief systems.

In the previous examples of climate change, extreme weather conditions and the assumed consequences of environmental damage have not had significant impact on those policy makers who are ‘climate sceptics. ‘ Their policy core has by no means been changed or modified as a whole, even though empirical elements of climate change evidence has changed gradually over the last four decades15. There is no suggested alternative to the ACF if and when policy core is not changed, thus placing insufficient emphasis on the importance of the variation and content of decision making belief systems.

A further critique of ACF is its failure to look at the impact of interests and individual choices in policy making process. There is no advancement of the rational actor model and Sabatier’s ideas focus wholly on groups of individuals collectively bargaining for a platform for their shared ideas and belief systems. Proposing that individual choice does not feature but that individuals are features of policy subsystem, the ACF perceptibly omits vital strategies of interest groups and coalition- formation16. Finally it is argued that the ACF is only applicable to western and developed countries.

Sabatier himself admits this feature as it was originally developed using the Lake Tahoe case, with a largely American context in mind17. Although Sabatier insists that since the ACF has been discovered, it has been applied well to a wide variety of policy areas outside of the US and Europe, the framework is still incomplete when assessing international policy areas such as climate change. It is not flexible enough to be readily transferred to developing nations, whom on the outset are most in need for positive environmental policy change.

Climate change and environmental policy globally needs a framework or model which is easily adaptable worldwide and not specific only to localised environment issues. The causes of environmental politics, in the case if climate change, are global in origin and highly distributed across society18. Ideas in environmental policy based on ACF works successfully within developed countries but it is not as transient in aiding environmental policy formation transnationally. As demonstrated so far ACF is an incomplete model for ideas in environmental policy. Therefore which model would best suit ideas in environmental policy making?

It is now suggested that the ideational theory of epistemic communities is a far better fit to explain ideas in environmental policy making. An epistemic community is a network of professionals with recognised expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy- relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area19. Epistemic communities consist of specific actors who carry certain ideas in to the policy making domain and use these ideas effectively by successfully engaging other decision making actors who share common casual and normative beliefs.

They are frequently called upon to influence and research an area of policy which they are suitably informed upon. The most common usage of the term is a group of scientists forming a community of specialised experts who can legitimately propose solutions to international problems, such as the environment and climate change. This is according to Haas a major difference between ACF and epistemic communities that the latter model is knowledge based theory rather than value-based.

Haas suggests there need not be a constrained choice between ideas and interests, but actually the two paradigms can actively work together to form a much more cohesive model, in that which is found in epistemic communities. Causal mechanisms influence policy pathways in times of increased uncertainty policy makers will turn to epistemic communities to elucidate the cause and effect relationships, provide information about the likely impact of an adopted policy, help define the self- interests of political actors and help formulate policy20.

Key locations where members of epistemic communities could gain significant leverage is within think tanks and research institutions, which is ideal for climate change as the issue is shrouded in complexity and is inseparable from complicated scientific evidence21. Epistemic communities have been useful when looking at the case for banning chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in 1987 where the successful co-ordination of national and international policies to protect the ozone layer was influenced by the activities of an ecological epistemic community22.

The Rowland- Molina hypothesis in 1974 was largely ignored until a group of actors including atmospheric scientists and expert researchers in environment and science, shared common validity tests with sympathetic policy makers This dominant epistemic community shared the same causal beliefs which implied a link between CFC production and the depletion of the ozone layer and successfully propagated the idea with the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987. The epistemic community were the only competent scientific group which contributed to the timing and stringency of CFC regulations.

Through a combination of strategies ranging from dissemination of technical information, persuasion of individuals and groups to the capture of various decision- making channel23, this group of actors successfully infiltrated the policy making process.. Though these actors’ political beliefs or principled beliefs are different, they shared notions of validity and shared enterprise. Haas demonstrates that epistemic communities share both causal and principled beliefs as well as sharing both knowledge base and interests.

This will inevitably lead to epistemic communities being more politically empowered and they become entrenched in political systems and government frameworks. The relationship becomes reciprocal as political policy ideas may already be developed but engaging with epistemic communities gives already defined policy ideas more credibility. This is an issue with epistemic communities which Patterson (1996) has identified to be a limitation, although Haas prefers to decipher this political relationship as epistemic community’s ability to help governments interpret emerging scientific consensus and articulate policies24.

David Toke (1999) also lambasts Hass’ theory of epistemic communities for suggesting that scientists are the sole informants for environmental policy making and interest groups play a less important role in mobilising global support and influencing policy. Haas seems to claim that epistemic communities are superior to social movements such as Greenpeace, even though these NGO’s often commission scientists to produce work on their behalf in order to take to the policy table25.

Hass argues that the ACF model is unclear about what outcomes are likely to be other than formation of short- term policy coalitions, when members of international government and non-governmental bodies interact26. Epistemic communities allow for empirical research focussing attention on the impact of scientific knowledge on international co-operation processes27. Adler (1992) claims that epistemic communities play roles in international co-operation in fields characterised by technical uncertainty and complexity.

These transnational networks mobilise and frame information and convince powerful actors, such as the World Bank and US government, to press nation states to adopt accepted environmental policies28. This demonstrates the ability epistemic communities possess to transcend international borders and act globally, not just in national issues in the case of ACF. This attribute is imperative in environmental policy making if the policy is to affect global environment, such as the active actors of the UN’s IPCC group.

However, if environmental policy is to focus on only on national and localised issue, then Hass’ ACF model as used in Lake Tahoe fits the policy call suitably. In conclusion, ACF theory cannot explain the role of ideas in environmental policy making completely. The fundamental core belief is non-negotiable but it is the policy core that can be, subject only to exogenous shocks, influenced and changes the course of policy maker’s ideas through the formation of coalitions. However when change does occurs, irrespective of external influences, the ACF struggles to explain this new policy path.

The theory aligns itself too closely to policy network theory and accentuates a descriptive model rather than casual without ever showing how changes of ideas occur. ACF is a good model to study decision making processes and how coalitions interact to determine a policy change, but in more national environmental causes and not sufficiently in global environmental policy making. To use ACF to explain a worldwide environmental policy which will affect political systems, actors and population globally, is too premature.

A more functional model is epistemic communities, which offer a more complete, intuitive and legitimate theory of how ideas are juxtaposed throughout the policy process. It offers the most plausible and solid account for environmental politics, internationally, than the limiting factors of the ACF. It is also acknowledged that a rarefied view of science and reliance upon elites whom possess scientific expertise is serving to conspicuously omit other credible actors from epistemic community theory.

These limitations however are far less than those that are found within ACF. Providing there is greater flexibility in the epistemic communities structure together with supplementing ideas from the ACF, the new fused model would allow greater acknowledgement that belief systems are vital and the reality that interest groups contract out epistemic community experts.


  1. Campbell, J (2002), ‘Ideas, Politics, and Public Policy’, American Review of Sociology VOL 28 Haas, P M (1992), ‘Banning chlorofluorocarbons: epistemic community efforts to protect stratospheric ozone’, International Organization 46, 1, Winter 1992 Haas, P M (1992), ‘Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination’ International Organization 46, 1, Winter 1992 Gough, C and Shackley, S (2001), ‘The respectable politics of climate change: the epistemic communities and NGO’s’ International Affairs 77, 2 John, P (1999), ‘Analysing Public Policy’, Pinter.
  2. Sabatier, P A and Jenkins- Smith, H C (1999), ‘The Advocacy Coalition Framework: an assessment’ in Theories of the Policy Press, Boulder, CO: Westview Press Sabatier, P A and Brasher, A M (1993), ‘From Vague Consensus to Clearly Differentiated Coalitions: Environmental Policy at Lake Tahoe 1964- 1985’, in Sabatier and Jenkins- Smith Policy Change and Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach, Boulder, CO: Westview Press Sabatier, P A and Jenkins- Smith, H C (1994), ‘Evaluating the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ Journal of Public Policy, VOL.
  3. 14, 2 Toke, D (1999), ‘Epistemic Communities and Environmental Groups’, Politics VOL 19 Adler, E (1992), ‘The emergence of cooperation: national epistemic communities and international evolution of the idea of nuclear arms control’ International Organization 46, 1, Winter 1992 Dunlop, C (2000), ‘Epistemic Communities: A Reply to Toke’, Politics VOL 20 Hannigan, J (2005), ‘Environmental Sociology’, 2nd Ed, Chp 7, New York: Routledge Patterson, M (1996), ‘Global Warming and Global Politics’, Chp 7, New York: Routledge
  4. Diani, M and Donati, P R (1999), ‘Organisational Change in Western European Environmental Groups: A Framework for Analysis’, Environmental Politics VOL 8 Colebatch, H K (2002) ‘Policy: Second edition’, Open University Press 1 ‘Ideas, Politics, And Public Policy’ J. Campbell (2002) pg 21 2 ibid, pg 23- 24 3 Ibid, pg 25-26 4 ‘The advocacy coalition framework: an assessment’ P. Sabatier and H. Jenkins- Smith (1999) pg 117 5 ‘Analysing Public Policy’ P. John (1999) pg 155 6 ibid, pg 170.
  5. 7 ‘From Vague Consensus to Clearly Differentiated Coalitions: Environmental Policy at Lake Tahoe 1964- 1985’ P. Sabatier and A. Brasher (1993) pg 177- 179 8 ibid, pg 184 9 ibid, pg 183 10 ibid, pg 184 11 ‘Evaluating the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ H. Jenkins- Smith and P. Sabatier (1994) pg 181 12 ibid, pg 181- 182 13 ‘The advocacy coalition framework: an assessment’ P. Sabatier and H. Jenkins- Smith (1999) pg 122 14’Evaluating the Advocacy Coalition Framework’ H. Jenkins- Smith and P. Sabatier (1994) pg 183 15 ibid, pg 181- 182 16 ‘Analysing Public Policy’ P.John (1999) pg 172 17 ‘.
  6. The advocacy coalition framework: an assessment’ P. Sabatier and H. Jenkins- Smith (1999) pg 151 18 ‘The respectable politics of climate change: the epistemic communities and NGO’s’ C. Gough and S. Shackley (2001) pg 330 19 ‘Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination’ P. Haas (1992) pg 3 20 ibid, pg 15 21 ‘The respectable politics of climate change: the epistemic communities and NGO’s’ C. Gough and S. Shackley (2001) pg 330 22.
  7. ‘Banning chlorofluorocarbons: epistemic community efforts to protect stratospheric ozone’ P.Haas (1992) pg 187 23 ibid, pg 224 24 ibid, pg 215 25 ‘Epistemic Communities and Environmental Groups’ D. Toke (1999) pg 100 26 ‘Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination’ P. Haas (1992) pg 32 27 ‘The emergence of cooperation: national epistemic communities and international evolution of the idea of nuclear arms control’ E. Adler (1992) pg 104 28 ‘Ideas, Politics, And Public Policy’ J. Campbell (2002) pg 30Public Policy: Interests, Ideas and Institutions Dec 2009.

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The Advocacy Coalition Framework. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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