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This article uses three perspectives to explain the radical economic and state sector reforms undertaken in New Zealand starting in 1984. We interpret the reforms using a rational-comprehensive perspective, a garbage can perspective and a modified garbage can perspective identified in the work of John Kingdon. With New Zealand as an illustrative case, we explore the conditions under which radical reform is possible, the factors governing the adoption of reforms, and the impact on the reform process of a country's historical and cultural traditions. Our analysis emphasizes the import of a package of ready-made solutions, strong advocates (particularly a well-placed policy entrepreneur) who attach the solutions to a problem, and the existence of a ‘window of opportunity’ for adoption of the reforms. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of adopting reforms that run counter to a nation's long-established traditions.