From a Trickle to a Torrent: An Analysis of Decision-Making While Navigating the Swift Streams of E-Rate Reform
Posted: 2 Apr 2015
Date Written: March 31, 2015
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support Mechanism – known as E-rate – is the largest federal education technology fund in the United States. In 2014, the FCC substantially modernized, revised, and increased this fund by $1.5 billion per year. This paper will apply John W. Kingdon’s agenda-setting and alternative specification framework to the FCC’s E-rate modernization proceeding, and will explore the confluence of the problem, policy, and political streams recommended by that framework. The paper will undertake this analysis from the perspective of the American Library Association (ALA) and explore how the association transitioned from a policy follower to a policy entrepreneur at various stages of this framework.
“From a Trickle to a Torrent” will explore how a small but established advocate navigates a large and complex federal proceeding as the various streams converged into a treacherous torrent with long-term implications for thousands of institutions and millions of people. The research will contribute to a slim body of knowledge available to smaller and less-well-resourced advocates seeking change in a complicated and esoteric policy terrain.
The paper offers a thick description of a policy instance within an established framework to empirically examine key decision points in the proceeding to evaluate ALA’s influence in the proceeding outcome and interim impacts for libraries in context with other library and school stakeholders. Evaluation criteria will include citation analysis of FCC notices, orders, public statements and speeches; number and depth of comments and notices of ex parte meetings filed in the docket; data and research reports; mentions in trade press; and stakeholder interviews.
Specifically, the paper will examine: The problems stream feeding the proceeding, including the transition of Universal Service Fund programs from telephony to broadband, an E-rate program funding cap dating back to 1997, increased reliance on technology in schools for online testing and personalized digital learning, and entrenched broadband capacity gaps in libraries and schools. The primeval policy soup of solutions ALA selected among identified alternatives in terms of the shift from legacy telecommunications services to broadband; the focus on affordable broadband connections within buildings relative to connections to the buildings and the urban/rural and school/library divides inherent in choosing a side; and risk-taking related to incremental versus radical program changes. The macro political stream of Presidential and Congressional interests and goals favoring non-legislative initiates, as well as the retirement of a long-time E-rate champion and the concept of an E-rate legacy; the micro political stream of stakeholder agendas, relationships, and their influence among political and FCC leaders; and the nano-political stream of the relationship of ALA to its members and balancing the immediate concerns of libraries with long-term public policy considerations. The convergence of these factors that opened a policy window through which ALA pushed its agenda forward.
“From a Trickle to a Torrent” offers a case study with lessons for federal policymakers, advocates and researchers interested in improving policy "sausage-making," as well as outcomes.
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