The role of policy actors and contextual factors in policy agenda setting and formulation : Maternal fee exemption policies in Ghana over four and a half decades

Koduah, Augustina; Dijk, Han van; Agyepong, Irene Akua


Background: Development of health policy is a complex process that does not necessarily follow a particular format and a predictable trajectory. Therefore, agenda setting and selecting of alternatives are critical processes of policy development and can give insights into how and why policies are made. Understanding why some policy issues remain and are maintained whiles others drop off the agenda is an important enquiry. This paper aims to advance understanding of health policy agenda setting and formulation in Ghana, a lower middle-income country, by exploring how and why the maternal (antenatal, delivery and postnatal) fee exemption policy agenda in the health sector has been maintained over the four and half decades since a 'free antenatal care in government facilities' policy was first introduced in October 1963. Methods: A mix of historical and contemporary qualitative case studies of nine policy agenda setting and formulation processes was used. Data collection methods involved reviews of archival materials, contemporary records, media content, in-depth interviews, and participant observation. Data was analysed drawing on a combination of policy analysis theories and frameworks. Results: Contextual factors, acting in an interrelating manner, shaped how policy actors acted in a timely manner and closely linked policy content to the intended agenda. Contextual factors that served as bases for the policymaking process were: political ideology, economic crisis, data about health outcomes, historical events, social unrest, change in government, election year, austerity measures, and international agendas. Nkrumah's socialist ideology first set the agenda for free antenatal service in 1963. This policy trajectory taken in 1963 was not reversed by subsequent policy actors because contextual factors and policy actors created a network of influence to maintain this issue on the agenda. Politicians over the years participated in the process to direct and approve the agenda. Donors increasingly gained agenda access within the Ghanaian health sector as they used financial support as leverage. Conclusion: Influencers of policy agenda setting must recognise that the process is complex and intertwined with a mix of political, evidence-based, finance-based, path-dependent, and donor-driven processes. Therefore, influencers need to pay attention to context and policy actors in any strategy.