Surfing for problems: Agenda setting strategy in environmental advocacy

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Sarah B. Pralle

Second Advisor

Sarah B. Pralle


Public policy, Framing, Agenda setting, Problem surfing, Environmental policy

Subject Categories

Political Science


This study examines environmental group advocacy strategy for getting policy proposals onto the governmental agenda. Building upon the work of John Kingdon, I argue that interest groups can increase attention to their policy solutions by framing them as the answer to highly salient problems, which government is looking to act upon. Groups may shift these frames over time as various problems rise and fall in prominence, a process called "problem surfing." I explore this proposition through case studies of environmental advocacy by the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council in three policy areas: forestry, energy, and transportation. I analyze advocacy group communication materials--specifically, group magazine articles and congressional testimony--and track issue framing over a 25-35 year period. I supplement these data with interviews conducted with organizational staffers. I find that advocacy groups do problem surf for issues when framing their policy solutions, but not indiscriminately and not in an identical manner to one another. Problem surfing is influenced by several organizational variables, including group identity and issue niche, and variables related to the specific policy being promoted. These and other factors also affect the way groups engage in frame contestation to fight off competing packages of problems and solutions created by their policy rivals. This study contributes to research on agenda setting by pointing out that, at times, interest groups are solution-driven, and illustrates one way that groups can increase their chances of policy success. It also adds to our understanding of framing processes by asking questions about why policy actors decide to frame issues in a specific way at a given time. In so doing, it brings together insight from the policy process, interest group, and organizational theory literatures.


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