The Development of the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF)

Categories: Advocacy

The Advocacy coalition framework (ACF) was developed by Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins Smith to better describe complicated policy systems that are characterized by “wicked problems”— those with high goal conflict, substantial technical uncertainty about the nature and causes of the problem, and large number of actors from multiple levels of government (Hoppe & Peterse, 1993). The development of the framework was inspired in response to the need to overcome three limitations in policy process research. The first limitation was that the stages heuristic popularized by Jones (1970), Anderson (1975), and Peters (1986), was an inadequate casual theory of the policy process (Sabatier, 1991 p.


The second limitation was addressing the lack of theoretical insight and research on the role of technical and scientific information in policy debate and conflict (Jenkins Smith, 1990; Sabatier, 1998). The third limitation was the need to place focus beyond “iron triangles” and single institutions in political political science and form system-based theories of politics and policy change over time (Sabatier, 1986; Sabatier 1991; Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p.

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136). The ACF model is system-based, integrates most stages of the policy cycle, and incorporates aspects of top down and bottom-up approaches to researching policy implementation, and places scientific and technical information at the center of its hypotheses (Weible, Sabatier, & McQueen, 2009).

The foundation of the ACF was also heavily influenced by contributions from Imre Lakatos’s. The first is the notion that scientific theories can be described as consisting of a “hard core” of unchanging and largely axiomatic propositions surrounded by a “protective belt” of auxiliary hypothesis that can be adjusted (or rejected) in response to potentially falsifiable evidence as well.

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The second is his proposition that theoretical progress was most readily evident in “progressive problem-shift”—which means that new concepts and hypotheses must address counterevidence and also add new empirical content that extends the existing reach of the theory (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p.136). These patterns are visible both within the components of the ACF and the ACF structure as a whole, they are reflected in the belief system and the theoretical growth.

The ACF specifies that individuals are boundedly rational—meaning they are instrumentally motivated by goals—with a limited cognitive ability to process stimuli (Simon 1957, 1985); they have a reliance on their beliefs as the principal heuristic to filter, simplify, and possibly distort the world around them (Munro & Ditto, 1997; Munro et al., 2002); and they remember losses more readily than gains, making them prone to experience the “devil shift”—where actors exaggerate the power and maliciousness of their opponents (Quattrone & Tversky, 1988; Sabatier, Hunter, & McLaughlin, 1987). In addition, the ACF identifies beliefs as the casual driver for political behavior and it assumes actors have a three-tiered hierarchical belief system consisting of deep core beliefs, policy core beliefs, and secondary beliefs.

Deep core beliefs are fundamental predominately normative values and ontological axioms, they are the most stable and may be applicable to various subsystems since they are not policy specific. These beliefs can be understood using the four orientations in the cultural theory and their sets of myths to imply appropriate forms of social organization (Douglas & Wildavsky 1982; Thompson & Widavsky, 1990). Policy core beliefs can be normative and empirical, and they are bound by both the substantive and geographic scope and topic of specific subsystems. Normative policy core beliefs may reflect the basic orientation, value priorities, and whose welfare is of greatest concern within a subsystem. Empirical policy core beliefs can reflect the seriousness of a problem, its causes, and favorable solutions. Policy core beliefs are resistant to change can adjust in response to verification and refutation from learning new information and experiences.

Lastly, secondary beliefs are more empirically based and narrower substantively and geographically in scope than policy core beliefs. They consist of the specific instrumental means that will be used to achieve outcomes consistent with policy core beliefs (Weible et al., 2009, p. 122; Weible & Sabatier, 2017 140-141). Subsystems lie within an overall political system and they contain multiple advocacy coalitions, which consist of specific groups of policy actors with identical core beliefs that actively coordinate activities with the goal of translating those beliefs into actions—while competing with other coalitions—that will impact policy by adjusting strategies to influence government authority decisions and in turn, institutional rules.

The ACF organizes coalitions within subsystems based on policy core beliefs because they are the most stable and all encompassing measure of a subsystem due to the large amount of actors that can be both directly or indirectly involved and the varying maturity levels of the subsystem itself. Policy actors’ strategies for influence and policy change, the degree of non-trivial coordination among actors, and the amount of cross-coalition interactions, intracoalition gains, making them prone to experience the “devil shift”—where actors exaggerate the power and maliciousness of their opponentscohesiveness, and factors contributing to coalition defection can all be gauged on the basis of policy core beliefs (Sabatier & Brasher, 1993; Henry, 2011; Jenkins-Smith, St. Clair, & Woods, 1991, Nohrstedt, 2010). The ACF’s central purpose is to provide a comprehensive overview of the entire policy process that can be applied by and within multiple disciplines, policy areas, and governing systems which contributes to the understanding policy change and stability.

The framework has five foundational assumptions: First, the policy subsystem/defined by policy topic, territorial scope, and the actors directly or indirectly influencing policy subsystem affairs—is the primary unit of analysis for understanding the policy processes. Second, policy actors exist beyond the traditional “iron triangle” and include officials from all government levels, private sector representatives, members from non-profit organizations, members of the news media, academic scientists and researchers, private consultants, lobbyist, think tanks, and members of court. Third, scientific and technical explanations serve as a central role in the policy process. Fourth, a long-term perspective of 10 years or more is required to understand policy change. Fifth, policies should be viewed be viewed as a translation of beliefs and not just actions or inactions of the government (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 139-142)

The ACF is one of the most utilized and reviewed frameworks of the policy process in the world, offering a general foundation for both single case studies and comparative analyses across a wide range of issues and systems. In addition, the ACF supports overlapping theoretical foci and provides shared research platform where analysts can work together in describing, explaining, and, sometimes, predicting phenomena within and across different context (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p.138). The ACF was designed to understand policy processes in North America, Europe, and Asia (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Sabatier, 1998; Jang, Weible & Park, 2016).

A review of 240 ACF applications from 1987-2014 revealed that it has been applied to topics including environmental or resource issues, public health, education, science and technology, social welfare, foreign and defense, economics and finance, urban planning and transportation, and a few others around the globe (Weible at al., 2009; Pierce et al, 2017). In addition, the ACF has also been used to compare and contrast policy change and advocacy coalitions across multiple governing systems, applied in other languages, and country-specific reviews of ACF application have been done (Jang et al., 2016; Nohrestedt & Olofsson, 2016b; Weible et al., 2016). The ACF seeks to explain a number of phenomena in complex policy-making systems by answering questions regarding coalitions, learning, and policy change using subsystem level analysis based the on the assumptions, scope, and relationships between groups of concepts within a set of general categories.

General categories of the policy process included in the framework are relatively stable parameters, Long-term coalition opportunity structures, external subsystem events, short-term constraints and resources of subsystem actors, and the policy subsystem (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p.143). Policy subsystems operate within the political environment and are not immune to the influence of external impacts; the political environment is defined by relatively stable parameters and external events, and is constrained by long-term coalition opportunity structures, the short-term constraints and resources of subsystem actors, and other events that take place within the policy subsystem. The interdependencies of these components have not been made entirely clear (Fenger & Klock, 2001). The modified version of methodological individualism in the ACF is that world change is primarily driven by people and not by organizations and the behavior of individuals is shaped by contextual factors including the nature of relevant institutions, the intensity of conflict, and the perceived severity of threats by their opponents (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p.140). Furthermore, the value of an idea is dependent on the acceptance and use by actors within coalitions and vice versa (Cairney, 2014, p. 494).

The concept put forth by the ACF is that behaviors and their outcomes in a system are interdependent, explains that putting raw political power over superior evidence is not sustainable because of the costs to one’s credibility and depletion of future resources, specifically in the form of favors called in. Therefore, those who can most effectively deploy persuasive evidence will be conserving political resources and are more likely to have long-term success over those who ignore technical arguments. In addition, coalitions respond to external factors with “shocks”—which are ways they compete to adapt to, and interpret external events (Cariney, 2014, p.495). Therefore, external factors cannot fully determine or explain outcomes without taking institutional rules into consideration (Cairney, 2012). The ACF provides an understanding of Institutions as forms of behavior that are linked to rules and norms accepted or challenged by coalitions (Sabatier, 1993; Sabatier & Weible, 2007; Cariney, 2013).

The relationships and components of the ACF can be described through comparisons to outer space. First, the overarching political system is like the Milky Way, because it contains the subsystems and stable parameters, opportunities, and resources for coalitions to act. Next, the subsystem is the solar system and policy outcomes are the Sun. Policy outcomes serve as the center of the subsystem since all other subsystem components surround and react to it. Coalitions/core beliefs act as planets, since they have a relationship with the Sun but the nature of that relationship varies just like orbital paths do. The strategies/secondary beliefs of each coalition are like moons, coalitions within a subsystem have many varying strategies just as planets have a different amounts of moons orbiting them. Moons make short orbits around the planet and longer orbits around the sun just like the strategies of each coalition do not directly cause policy outcomes but are still an important component of the subsystem.

In conclusion: The policy subsystem (solar system) lies within the political system (Milky Way) and policy outcomes are the center of the subsystem (Sun), Coalitions (planets) orbit the sun and moons orbit those planets (strategies). Policies and programs are comprised of implicit theories that are a manifestation of the translated beliefs of one or more coalitions. Therefore, public policies are a reflection of the political maneuvering and negotiations of both coalitions and casual theories as well (Pressman & Wildavsky, 1973; Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1983). Casual theory, when used in context to describe both the implicit and explicit contents of public policy refers to the sequence of steps, a linking of anticipated events, or desired procedures that describe the reasoning for achieving outputs or outcomes (Weible & Sabatier, 2017 p. 142).

The ACF has found four paths to policy change, the first is external shocks to the subsystem. These events are out outside of the control of participants and include broad changes in socioeconomic conditions, regime change, outputs from other subsystems, and extreme events. External events can foster change in the subsystem by shifting resources, tipping the power of coalitions, and changing beliefs (Weible & Sebatier, 2009). The second path is policy oriented learning, defined to be relatively enduring alternations of thought or behavioral intentions that result from experience and/or new information and that are concerned with attainment or revision of policy objectives (Sabatier & Jenkins- Smith, 1999, p. 123). The third policy change is internal subsystem events, these events that highlight failures in current subsystem policy practices (Sabatier & Weible, 2007, pp. 204–5). The forth path to policy change is through negotiated agreement among previously warring coalitions and may result in substantial change in government programs. Sabatier and Weible (2007, 205-206) identify nine conditions that lead affect the likelihood of negations happening, they include: a hurting stalemate, effective leadership, consensus-based decision rules, diverse funding, duration of process and commitment of members, a focus on empirical issues, an emphasis on building trust, and lack of alternate venues.


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The Development of the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF). (2021, Sep 24). Retrieved from

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