In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Policy Feedback

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Intellectual Origins/Early Works

Political Science Policy Feedback
Andrea Louise Campbell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0235


Although political science research often views public policy as the outcome of political processes, the policy feedback approach incorporates existing policies as inputs into the policymaking process. Existing policies fundamentally reshape the political environment and, therefore, subsequent policy outcomes in a dynamic and cyclical manner. Policies through their designs and implementation affect a variety of actors in the political system, including both members of the public and political elites such as elected politicians, bureaucrats and agencies, and interest groups. At the elite level, policies can confer resources on some interest groups over others, shape views about what constitute good policies, impose budget constraints, and affect institutional capacity. Among the public, they can influence individuals’ attitudes about the role of government and toward societal groups, and they can enhance or undermine rates of political participation. Scholars interested in policy feedback study aspects of policy designs to illuminate what kinds of effects policies have on subsequent politics.

General Overviews

The authors cited in this section variously define policy feedbacks, offer literature reviews, and suggest research agendas and shortcomings. Mettler and Soss 2004 makes an early argument for joining policy studies and behavioral research. Béland 2010 offers an excellent intellectual history, beginning with the roots of feedbacks in historical institutionalism. Campbell 2012 reviews the feedbacks and mass politics literature and raises methodological concerns that early studies in particular were based on cross-sectional observational data, raising concerns about selection bias (i.e., observed differences among groups in different programs are not because of program effects but merely preexisting differences). Because of these concerns, many authors of this post-2010 literature have attempted better causal designs. In an edited volume on theories of policy processes, Mettler and SoRelle 2014 discusses policy feedback as one policy studies approach. Mettler 2016 devises a new term for the accumulation of policies over time—“policyscape”—and describes why existing policies need updating to keep up with evolving economic and social conditions, raising some questions about whether certain types of policies are self-reinforcing.

  • Béland, Daniel. “Reconsidering Policy Feedback: How Policies Affect Politics.” Administration and Society 42 (2010): 568–590.

    DOI: 10.1177/0095399710377444

    Extensive literature review of the intellectual origins of policy feedback in historical institutionalism and the three main streams of policy feedback research since the 1990s: policy feedback and political behavior, the relationship between public and private policies, and the “role of ideational and symbolic policy legacies” (p. 569). Uses the history and politics of Social Security to illustrate these streams, discuss the definition of policy feedback, assess claims, and suggest a research agenda.

  • Campbell, Andrea Louise. “Policies Make Mass Publics.” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (2012): 333–351.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-012610-135202

    Provides an overview of extant scholarship on policy feedback effects on political attitudes and behaviors among members of the public. Distills program characteristics that seem to produce positive versus negative effects, and enumerates gaps and shortcomings in the literature (particularly methodological concerns).

  • Mettler, Suzanne. “The Policyscape and the Challenges of Contemporary Politics to Policy Maintenance.” Perspectives on Politics 14 (2016): 369–390.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592716000074

    Creates the term “policyscape” to refer to the thicket that past policies have made in establishing institutions and shaping government operations, policy agendas, and political behavior. Argues that existing policies require “upkeep and maintenance” for continued effectiveness, even as political polarization has made such updating more difficult and “deferred maintenance” more common.

  • Mettler, Suzanne, and Mallory SoRelle. “Policy Feedback Theory.” In Theories of the Policy Process. 3d ed. Edited by Paul A. Sabatier and Christopher M. Weible, 151–181. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2014.

    Argues that policy feedback theory sits between two dominant approaches: between scholars of policy analysis, who assess policy alternatives for effectiveness, and scholars of policy process, who assess political feasibility. Feedback theory enriches policy analysis by explaining how policy designs affect political actors and therefore governance, and it enhances study of the policy process by explaining how existing policies affect probability and design of future policies.

  • Mettler, Suzanne, and Joe Soss. “The Consequences of Public Policy for Democratic Citizenship: Bridging Policy Studies and Mass Politics. Perspectives on Politics 2 (2004): 55–73.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1537592704000623

    Early review article that seeks to integrate the study of policy influences into behavioral research. Shows how the policy feedback approach reverses the arrow of causality that has dominated political science since the advent of systems theory and pluralism in the mid-20th century. Argues that existing approaches center on representation and view mass preferences and political actions as inputs into the political system, whereas policy feedback arguments see these as outputs of existing public policy.

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