Research note. The Role of Regulatory Agencies in Framing Public Issues

Research note by Edoardo Guaschino based on the paper: Guaschino, E. 2018. ‘The role of Regulatory Agencies in Framing public Issues: An Empirical Analysis’, European Policy Analysis.


In this article, I seek to respond to the following research question: Under what conditions are national regulatory agencies involved in framing public issues? The answer is important to know whether national regulatory agencies may go beyond their original tasks by advocating for a given issue definition in the policy process. In addition, taking a critical approach to how public and social issues are defined is important for improved policymaking.

The main starting point of this article is thus the bridging of two distinctive areas of the literature. On one hand, ‘framing’ describes the way issues are defined through a process that sees ‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘claim makers’ pushing for a given representation of public issues. The literature on framing and more generally on social construction of problems has neglected the relatively new emergence of regulatory agencies as potential entrepreneurs, able to advocate to influence the content of policies. On the other hand, the diffusion of regulatory agencies represents the most recent institutional transformation of the regulatory state. Already, some studies on agencies have suggested that agencies go beyond their formal tasks to influence the process of policymaking; taking for granted that framing is a crucial step of this process, the conditions under which regulatory agencies play a strong role remains an open question.

To fill this gap, in this paper, I proceeded through various empirical steps and by adopting a mixed-method approach. First, the paper presents the first attempt to measure the involvement of agencies in the framing process by selecting two sectors: food safety and environmental protection. This is done by breaking down the concept of framing into four crucial dimensions that I call cognitive, initiative, leadership and instrumental. To operationalize this concept, I used a survey and obtained a set of values that I aggregated to obtain the degree of involvement in framing of 36 agencies in the OECD countries.

This index initially offers a widespread view of how the degree of involvement in framing activities varies across countries and sectors. Therefore, I conducted several follow-up interviews to infer these results and make this measurement more robust.

The following step represents the main focus of this paper. To explore the conditions that lead agencies to play a role in framing, a fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA) was strongly appropriate. The results of my analysis shed interesting light on the conditions that lead agencies to be highly involved in framing. They in fact show that they are old agencies, with a low number of staff members, and they get involved when the risk of shifting issues to another venue is low. Only for the environmental agencies is being part of the European Union also favourable.

These results say a lot about informal structures of influence that converge towards a common pattern. Agencies may evolve over the years in terms of competences and assessing their legitimacy. The smaller size should also favour clearer policy goals, and the low risk that issues shift towards alternative venues (as health regulators) describes the competing framework with which agencies are confronted at the domestic level.

More generally, the results tell us that regulatory agencies, although they differ in terms of tasks, engage in framing activities, but only under certain conditions. Are we confronted with a paradox? The answer is yes, if we look at the framing process as intrinsically political. To frame public issues, which goes beyond consulting and advising policymakers, agencies not only need to produce ‘frames’ but also push for their representation, defending their interests and position along the policy process. Further research should explore the mechanisms behind these results, which see agencies promoting their views and attempting to pull their weight in policy formulation, with respect to each national configuration and institutional setting.

To conclude, because the literature on framing and more generally on social problem construction focuses very often on single-case studies, the present cross-national and cross-sectorial analysis may be of some interest for the community working in this area. The conceptualization of the framing process into four dimensions could be not only of some interest for replications but also the object of future improvements.

This may also attract the attention of scholars on regulatory governance working in post-delegation settings; because influence in framing is an unexpected consequence, many more settings are yet to be explored. This is even more important for the social sectors in which food security, health promotion and environmental protection represent crucial challenges for the next decades.

Thus, practitioners might also be interested in understanding the dynamics of the policymaking process from a comparative perspective, to potentially tackle political stakes with which they are confronted. These are the main reasons you should read my paper.



Edoardo Guaschino is a Ph.D Candidate and teaching assistant at the Institute of Political, Historical and International Studies, University of Lausanne. Visiting Research Fellow at Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


Recent publications:

  • Guaschino, E. 2018. ‘The role of Regulatory Agencies in Framing public Issues: An Empirical Analysis’, European Policy Analysis.
  • Guaschino, E. 2018 Definire per risolvere? Il ruolo dell’Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (ISPRA) nelle politiche ambientali, in “Rivista Italiana di Politiche Pubbliche, Rivista quadrimestrale” 3/2018, pp. 359-378