After a succesful meeting in 2009 organized by the Montesquieu Institute in The Hague, this year the Annual Comparative Agendas Project Conference was organized 17-19 June by the University of Washington in Seattle.
During the conference the following issues, amongst others, were discussed:
How do parliaments and governments set priorities in the constant flow off information and claims for attention? How responsive are they to claims from political parties and all kinds of interest groups? What effects do differences in the ways of organizing the separation of powers have on this responsiveness, and on legitimacy of governments and parliaments in the eyes of the public?
The Comparative Agendas Project
The Comparative Agendas Project is a still expanding group of over 60 scholars from 15 countries systematically analyzing how political institutions deal with information on issues and how they set priorities with so many different calls for attention from political parties and groups in society. Characteristic of the agendas project is that it is based on one common approach to data collection developed and used by all country teams, that it takes a long term view of developments in political attention, and that it builds on a shared theoretical framework of analysis.
This framework is a model in which changes in governmental attention to issues are mostly just small and modest but are interrupted by large shocks and shifts due to historical events.
This pattern is in part the consequence of the way in which the founding fathers of national Constitutions intended the system to work: sufficiently stable and robust to avoid that change is so frequent that political decision making becomes impossible. But as the current government formation following the collapse of the Balkenende IV government in The Netherlands may show, constitutional designs and separation of powers alone do not determine outcomes: parties have rival interests, and issues intruding on the agenda can change the game.
The Comparative Agendas Project links parliaments and governments as institutions to actors and issues on which these actors profile themselves. Currently, the collaborative project consists of over 1,500,000 records of political attention in the past 30 years, for some governmental and parliamentary datasets back to 1945 or even 1900.
Comparative research and topics of Seattle
The common approach used in this project enables the teams of scholars to do truly comparative research. In Seattle, different teams presented and discussed papers on central questions of political information and attention, such as:
How are institutional rules in parliaments used strategically by parties for agenda setting? What roles do parliamentary oppositions play in different countries, how do they develop political blame strategies? What is the link between programs set by parties and governments and the production of legislation during parliamentary terms? What are in different countries the roles of the media in political campaigns? What are the effects of decentralization (and federalization) on national governments and parliaments' role in setting national priorities? How is the European Union addressed in political party competition and governmental agenda setting in different countries? What effects do elections and parties' perceptions of the public mood have on the compliance of national governments to EU directives? What attention differences between the European Parliament, the Commission and the European Council are visible over time and what are the implications? Also at this conference, tools for computer assisted data analysis were demonstrated and discussed.
The Montesquieu Institute was represented at this conference by Petya Alexandrova and Lucie Zicha for their starting dissertation research on European agenda setting, Sebastiaan Princen, Anne Rasmussen and Gerard Breeman for their research projects on European and comparative agenda setting, mapping actors around the Commission and European Parliament, and a demonstration of a tool for automated content analysis, and Arco Timmermans for presenting a paper on 'coalitionability' in the Netherlands and research projects planning.
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