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How the Policy Triangle in Washington, D.C., Works

Making policy in Washington, D.C., is a complicated process that’s often riddled by compromises, half-baked ideas, and haphazardness. While the sausage-making analogy is often used, a slightly more elegant model to help visualize the key stakeholders involved in the policymaking process is the policy triangle. Three key stakeholders join together to form the triangle’s sides:

  • The White House

  • Congress

  • The private sector/interest groups

Each group represents the interests of a specific constituency, and sometimes the constituencies overlap. In the policy arena, the three major groups are constantly interacting to fine-tune policy objectives and tactics.

Keep in mind that the first two sides of the triangle have the ability to place policy items on the government’s agenda. Though the third side does not directly produce policy, it engages consistently with the first two sides in the policymaking process.

None of the three groups is monolithic. Congress, for example, splinters into Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and shifting coalitions within these demarcations. Within the three major groups, subgroups sometimes form alliances and coalitions to promote common views. Other times, interests differ so strongly (perhaps for partisan reasons or because of differences over substance) that some subgroups seek to block the actions of others.

The constellation of players changes according to the issue being debated.

Within the policy triangle, members of the White House staff and Congress have a distinct advantage: As presidential appointees or elected representatives, they are policymakers. By no means does this mean that they can make policy on a whim; even policymakers must successfully navigate the laborious policymaking process. But they’re in a position to initiate policy ideas from within the federal government.

The private sector and interest groups, while undoubtedly critical participants in the policymaking process, approach government policymaking from the outside. To push a policy agenda, they must persuade someone in the White House or Congress to take the idea and run with it. To accomplish this persuasion, they use a method called advocacy, arguing for specific agendas.

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