Focusing Event

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

A focusing event is a critical moment that brings a particular policy issue to the fore, this concept was formalized by John Kingdon in his Policy Streams theory.

Kingdon’s theory is summarized by Béland and Howlett (reference below):

“[Kingdon] suggested that window openings could sometimes be triggered by apparently unrelated external focusing events, such as crises, accidents, or the presence or absence of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ both within and outside of governments. At other times, these windows are opened by institutionalized events such as periodic elections or budget deadlines … windows are opened either by the appearance of compelling problems or by happenings in the political stream. … Policy entrepreneurs, people who are willing to invest their resources in pushing their pet proposals or problems, are responsible not only for prompting important people to pay attention, but also for coupling solutions to problems and for coupling both problems and solutions to politics.”

Thomas A Birkland (reference below) expands on the concept of focusing events:

“While the idea of focusing events is firmly rooted in Kingdon’s “streams approach” to the policy process, focusing events are an important element of most contemporary theories of the policy process. But not every event works as a focusing event. The process by which a focusing event can yield policy change is complex and involves attention to the problems revealed by the event, as well as evidence of learning from the event on the part of policy makers. While focusing events are important, in many ways the concept remains underdeveloped, with few researchers seeking to understand the dynamics of these important events.”

In a World Bank Blog, Sina Odugbemi (reference below) writes:

“Normally, focusing events are crisis events. And in the literature on agenda-setting, scholars like R.S. Wood specify that focusing events have the following characteristics:

  1. They occur suddenly;
  2. They tend to be rare;
  3. They are often large in scale; and
  4. Both policy makers and the public find out about these events at the same time.

“Recent examples are events like the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Japan or the Deep Water Horizon oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. What agenda-setting scholars claim, rightly I believe, is that focusing events promote broad discussion of policy: Why is this happening? What could we have done differently as a country? What should we do now?”

See also: Policy Window.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Problem Definition and Agenda Setting (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Daniel Béland & Michael Howlett (2016), The Role and Impact of the Multiple-Streams Approach in Comparative Policy Analysis, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 18:3, 221-227, DOI: 10.1080/13876988.2016.1174410, at, accessed 2 December 2018.

Thomas A. Birkland (2018), Agenda Setting and the Policy Process: Focusing Events, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, at, accessed 2 December 2018.

Sina Odugbemi (2014), Is Your Project a Focusing/Mobilizing Event? World Bank Blogs, 26 June 2014, at, accessed 2 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified 2 December 2018.

Image: Deepwater_Horizon_offshore_drilling_unit_on_fire.jpg, The World Bank, Is Your Project a Focusing/Mobilizing Event? at, accessed 2 December 2018.