A primer on policy entrepreneurs

By Jo Luetjens

Jo Luetjens (biography)

In the world of public policy, it is interesting to consider how and why particular policy ideas catch on. What is it that makes some ideas succeed and others fail? By examining the role of policy entrepreneurs we may come closer to an answer. In making policy change happen, what – and who – are policy entrepreneurs? Why are they important? What strategies do they use to effect change? And finally, what are the attributes of a successful policy entrepreneur?

The what

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic people who work with others in and around policymaking venues to promote significant policy change. The concept was introduced by John W. Kingdon in 1984, who said policy entrepreneurs “…could be in or out of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organisations. But their defining characteristic, much as in the case of a business entrepreneur, is their willingness to invest their resources – time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money – in the hope of a future return” (p. 122). Policy entrepreneurs distinguish themselves by being prepared to promote policy approaches that are new within specific contexts. They often promote policy innovations by telling new stories, creating new frames, or making arguments that break down traditional alignments of interests.

The why

The policymaking space, according to Kingdon, is made up by three more or less independent activities: the problem stream, the politics stream, and the policy stream. He argued that moments arise when perceptions of problems, political circumstances, and ideas for possible solutions all come into alignment. These moments are called ‘windows of opportunity’ or ‘policy windows’, and offer a real chance to enact policy change. Change is difficult, and this can frustrate people who want to make a positive difference in their area of work, so policy windows offer an opportunity for policy entrepreneurs to strike. They ‘lie in wait’, then take advantage of windows as they emerge. While Kingdon was looking directly at domestic policy change in the United States Congress, many scholars have followed his lead and have found policy entrepreneurs to be agents of policy change across a broad range of policy areas.

The how

The broader policymaking context will always be critical for determining the likelihood of policy entrepreneurs emerging, and the success they have in promoting policy change. However, there are specific strategies that policy entrepreneurs pursue that can increase their chances of influencing change. These include:

  1. Framing problems and redefining policy solutions. Policy entrepreneurs are conversationalists who create meaning through their discussion with others, bringing them along in the process. They do not simply impose their view and expect others to follow.
  2. Using and expanding networks. These actors tap into and understand how to use the skills and knowledge of others. They view networks as a vital resource they can draw on to support their cause.
  3. Creating a guiding advocacy coalition. Like entrepreneurs in business, policy entrepreneurs must be team players. This is where their real strength comes from. Team building can take several forms. The size and composition of these coalitions can be crucial for demonstrating the degree of support enjoyed by a proposal for policy change.
  4. Leading by example. Risk aversion among decision-makers presents a major challenge for actors seeking to promote significant policy change. Policy entrepreneurs often take actions intended to reduce risk – both real and perceived. A common strategy involves engaging with others to clearly demonstrate the feasibility of a policy proposal. This can do a lot to win credibility with others and build momentum for change.
  5. Building momentum and scaling up the change efforts. Policy entrepreneurs can tie together seemingly disparate change efforts to create a united platform that builds momentum for change on a larger scale. Leadership by example is vital to demonstrating credibility and making the pursuit of policy change believable.

The Who

While anyone can and may pursue these strategies in pursuit of policy change, there are particular personal attributes associated with highly effective policy entrepreneurs. These include:

  1. Ambition. Pushing a major policy agenda takes great commitment and energy. This attribute is vital for getting others to believe in what you are seeking to do and to join your efforts. Ambition for a particular cause supplies the ‘why’ that explains everything else that policy entrepreneurs do.
  2. Social acuity. The essential actions of policy entrepreneurs – problem framing, building teams, and leading by example – all call for high levels of social acuity. Windows of opportunity don’t come along with labels on them – they need to be perceived within complex social and political contexts. Through their social acuity, policy entrepreneurs discover how people are thinking about problems. They come to appreciate the concerns and motivations that drive others.
  3. Credibility. As policy entrepreneurship involves pursuing innovative goals by building coalitions of support, these actors must be credible. They can achieve credibility in a number of ways, for example, through expertise in a particular field, or their ability to gather coalitions of support
  4. Sociability. Although they choose particular policy ideas to support, policy entrepreneurs always consider how others will respond to what they have on offer. They empathise with others and understand their needs. This allows them to identify common interests between themselves and others. They make others feel appreciated.
  5. Tenacity. Policy entrepreneurs must be willing to keep working towards a bigger goal, even when that goal seems nowhere in sight. This is especially important because policymaking contexts are often highly complex and the chances of achieving success can seem slim.


How does this fit with your conception or experience of policy entrepreneurs? Are there any other attributes that you have found to be important? Policy entrepreneurs have typically been studied in domestic settings, do you think that these attributes and strategies would work in an inter- or trans-national arena? How do you think local conditions might serve or stymie attempts at policy entrepreneurship?

This blog post is a modified version of  ‘A primer on policy entrepreneurs’  published on 6 March 2017 on the ANZSOG [Australia and New Zealand School of Government] website: https://www.anzsog.edu.au/resource-library/news-media/a-primer-on-policy-entrepreneurs.

Kingdon, J. W. (2011). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. (2nd ed.). Longman: Boston, United States of America (first edition 1984).

To find out more:
Huitema, D. and Meijerink, S. (2010). Realising water transitions: The role of policy entrepreneurs in water policy change. Ecology and Society, 15, 2: 26.

Mintrom, M. (1997). Policy entrepreneurs and the diffusion of innovation. American Journal of Political Science, 41, 3: 738-770.

Mintrom, M., and Vergari, S. (1996). Advocacy coalitions, policy entrepreneurs, and policy change. Policy Studies Journal, 24, 3: 420-434.

Mintrom, M. and Norman, P. (2009). Policy entrepreneurship and policy change. Policy Studies Journal, 37, 4: 649-667.

Mintrom, M., Salisbury, C. and Luetjens, J. (2014). Policy entrepreneurs and promotion of Australian state knowledge economies. Australian Journal of Political Science, 49, 3: 423-438.

Biography: Jo Luetjens is a PhD fellow in the Successful Public Governance program at Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University. Prior to her appointment, she was a research officer at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. Her research focuses on efforts to improve public sector performance by exploring the gap between design and implementation.

10 thoughts on “A primer on policy entrepreneurs”

  1. Yes, credibility is important because it means that as well as seeking connections Policy Entrepreneurs will attract them, like magnets. I have talked about people who are ‘Magnetised Brokers’ in collaborative systems, bringing people and things together and introducing new blood to the system, etc. PEs seem to have a similar function, although not, perhaps, identical. Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Leandro,

      Thanks for the link! I have come across Maxwell before: his work is particularly interesting in understanding how the concept can be applied more broadly i.e. bridging the oft-cited gap between the worlds of policy and academia. The concept has certainly come a long way since its initial formulation.


  2. Thanks for these thought provoking responses, Melissa and Jo. Jo, yes, I would love a copy of your chapter when published. Very grateful!

  3. Hi Jo, thanks for your blog. Really good stuff!
    I had a bit of an aha moment when you were describing policymaking using Kingdon’s “3 more or less independent activities”. It wasn’t something I had come across before, but as a scientist who does a lot of work for policy makers, it is a really useful heuristic – so useful – I’m going to use in in a workshop that I am giving next week! I found it particularly insightful as a bit of a diagnostic as to why certain things don’t fly and others do.
    It is an interesting dilemma from a researcher perspective, about whether to specifically target policy entrepreneurs as partners for research.
    Thanks again for interesting blog.

    • Hi Melissa,

      Thank you for your comment! I’m really glad that you found the piece useful. Given the inherently ‘messy’ nature of policymaking, it makes sense to use these theories as heuristics. No one theory is ever going to be perfect – and nor should it be. But by recognising these attributes and strategies, we can get closer to understanding the nuances involved in the process.

      Interviewing individuals that we identified as policy entrepreneurs was always quite an interesting process – they would never call themselves that. To them, it was business as usual. That may be what makes them quite astonishing.

      Good luck with the workshop, I hope it goes well!


  4. Great post! Do you find it helpful to distinguish the levels of possible policy making (e.g., a classroom, a school, a school system, a region, a nation)? For example, the social acuity required to facilitate legitimacy and productive relationships in a school context might be slightly different from the acuity required to achieve achieve productive relationships on a national level. What do you think?

    • Hi Kirsten,

      Thanks for the questions! Absolutely – I think your point raises an interesting question about power and influence, and how each is (and can be) wielded at various levels. We have a book chapter coming out about policy entrepreneurs and foreign policy decision making. While we found similarities between the attributes and strategies that policy entrepreneurs deploy on the national and international level, their ability to navigate their specific environment was crucial to effecting any kind of policy change. We also found that effective policy entrepeneurs can more or less champion ambiguity – which is potentially more likely to occur when things are on a larger scale i.e. in a school system versus a classroom.

      I’d be happy to send you a copy when it’s published if it is of interest.


    • Hey Kirsten – I hadn’t thought about that. It is a good question – whether there a real differences in social acuity between levels of policy-making, or whether the main differences would be content knowledge or range of networks. Perhaps policy-making on a small scale might require higher EQ levels as there may be existing relationships with most parties…Will ponder on it a bit more. Thanks for the thought-provoking question!


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