Birkland’s research is in what we call the "public policy process." This research tries to explain why people pay attention to some problems more than others, and why policies change or don't change when it seems they should. In particular, he studies "focusing events" in the public policy process. These are sudden, shocking events like natural disasters, accidents, or acts of terrorism, that make people pay more attention to the problems revealed by the event. The fundamental questions Birkland asks are (1) do people learn from sudden, shocking events, and (2) if they do learn, under what conditions do they do so? This research is important because we assume that government tries to do a better job as it gains experience, but the number of barriers to learning and improving performance are many, and are often surprising.
After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events (Georgetown University Press, 1997).
Shows that news media attention and the extent of damage done by most disasters are associated with increased attention to the problems revealed by the event. But I also found that the internal politics of a particular policy area – earthquakes, hurricanes, oil spills, and nuclear power accidents – can yield substantial differences in post-disaster politics.
Lessons of Disaster Policy Change after Catastrophic Events (Georgetown University Press, 2006).
Proposes a model of post-disaster policy learning and improvement that relies on the accumulation of experience from prior events.
"Is Federalism the Reason for Policy Failure in Hurricane Katrina?" (with ). Publius 38, no. 4 (2008): 692-714.
Finds that some policy failures after Hurricane Katrina were related to federalism and policy design, but more important factors were the national focus on ‘‘homeland security’’ and the concomitant reduction in attention to natural hazards and disasters. This shift in focus after the September 11 attacks was more complicit in the erosion of government disaster management capacity that was revealed in Hurricane Katrina.
"Disasters, Lessons Learned, and Fantasy Documents" Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 17, no. 3 (2009): 146-156.
Details how, after disasters, there is considerable pressure to create "lessons learned" reports that purport to derive lessons from the most recent disaster. But such reports are often done in great haste, under information, time, and resource constraints, and in such a way that it is difficult to assess their value. They may be "lessons observed" documents, but claims to learning notwithstanding, I argue that these are "fantasy documents" because they are drafted in response to political, not administrative, goals.
"Federal Disaster Policy Learning, Priorities, and Prospects for Resilience" in Designing Resilience: Preparing for Extreme Events, edited by Arjen Boin, Louise Comfort, and Chris Demchak (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).
Finds that, after disasters, there is some evidence that state and local governments learn from experience to improve resilience to disasters. But this learning is rare and certain conditions usually need to be met before such learning can occur, which means that hopes for widespread post-disaster learning and increasing resilience may be unrealistic.
An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts, and Models of Public Policy Making, 3rd Edition (M.E. Sharpe, 2010).
Describes how public policy is made in the United States, using a highly readable style to weave together the roles of elected officials, the media, interest groups and government officials. The book uses the Constitution as the basic framework for understanding these actors' roles in the process, and draws on sophisticated current research to provide a more complete view of the process than do most introductory books.
In the News
"Economics Nobel Sends a Message," Thomas A. Birkland, Charlotte Observer, October 14, 2009.
"Still Too Much Risk in the Beach Plan," Thomas A. Birkland, Raleigh News & Observer, August 20, 2009.
Guest to discuss preparing and learning from disasters on WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks Radio Show”, Thomas A. Birkland, May 24, 2011.
Guest to discuss climate change and state policies to adapt and mitigate related hazards on WCNY’s “The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter”, Thomas A. Birkland, November 28, 2012.