When Bad News Becomes Routine: Slowly-Developing Problems Moderate Government Responsiveness

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 313
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211070306
When Bad News Becomes Routine:
Slowly-Developing Problems Moderate
Government Responsiveness
Derek A. Epp
and Herschel F. Thomas
Established theories of the policy process recognize the challenges governments face in processing information. We
examine how the ways in which public problems develop over time condition subsequent policy actions. We contend
that policymakers will become routinized to and consequently under-respond to the accumulating signals of slowly-
developing problems (i.e., those featuring long runs of relatively small changes). Event history analyses leverage variation
across the United States in the development of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent implementation of social
distancing policies. Looking across the 50 states and Washington DC, we f‌ind that regions that saw protr acted de-
terioration in their health situation were slower to respond with social distancing than those that saw an abrupt
deterioration to the same point. These results highlight the risks associ ated with problems that worsen only gradually
over time.
change blindness, agenda setting, problem stream, coronavirus, COVID-19, boiling frog
Before policymakers can solve problems they must attend
to them. For this reason, policy studies have emphasized
the importance of understanding how cognitive pro-
cessing routines govern how policymakers allocate their
attention. Fundamental limitations to the quantity of in-
formation that individuals can process simultaneously are
thought to ensure that government agendas will feature
bottle-necks (Lindblom, 1959;Jones, 2001). Conse-
quently, there is a disconnect between problems that
develop continuously and the policies designed to solve
them, which change in f‌its and starts as the attention of
policymakers lurches across competing agenda items
(Jones & Baumgartner, 2005).
A limited faculty for multi-tasking is far from the only
constraint weighing on human cognition, although thus
far it is the only one to receive serious attention in policy
studies. Instead, we draw from a rich psychological lit-
erature documenting evidence of change blindness, which
is a systematic bias tounderweight environmental changes
that are either small or occur routinely (Simons & Levin,
1997;Rensink, ORegan, and Clark, 1997;Simons, 2000;
Caird et al., 2005). We introduce and test the hypothesis
that policymakers are less responsive to problems that
develop continuously (i.e., featuring long runs of small
changes) versus those that develop more rapidly. In doing
so, we push the agenda-setting literature forward to con-
sider not only the relative overabundance of salient policy
information but also the longitudinal characteristics of that
information. Both elements are important for understand-
ing how policymakers allocate their attention.
To test this hypothesis, we use data relating to the
COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so has three advantages: (1)
the pandemic poses a serious policy problem that gov-
ernments around the world have had to respond to, (2)
there is high-quality longitudinal data documenting both
the scale of the problem and resulting social distancing
policies at subnational levels, and (3) there is variation
across the US states in the progression of the virus making
it possible to compare governmental responses between
Department of Government, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin,
Department of Political Science, West Virginia University, Morgantown,
Corresponding Author:
Derek A. Epp, Government, University of Texas at Austin, 158 W 21st
ST STOP A1800, Batts Hall 3.126, Austin, TX 78712-1704, USA.
Email: depp@austin.utexas.edu

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