Three ways to encourage policy learning

Claire Claudio

This is a guest post by  Claire A. Dunlop (left) and Claudio M. Radaelli (right), discussing how to use insights from the Policy Learning literature to think about how to learn effectively or adapt to the processes of ‘learning’ in policymaking that are more about politics than education. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

We often hear that university researchers are ‘all brains but no common sense’. There is often some truth to this stereotype. The literature on policy learning is an archetypal example of being high in IQ but low on street smarts. Researchers have generated a huge amount of ‘policy learning’ taxonomies, concepts and methods without showing what learning can offer policy-makers, citizens and societies.

This is odd because there is a substantive demand and need for practical insights on how to learn. Issues include economic growth, the control of corruption, and improvement in schools and health. Learning organisations range from ‘street level bureaucracies’ to international regulators like the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

To help develop a more practical agenda, we distil three major lessons from the policy learning literature.

1. Learning is often the by-product of politics, not the primary goal of policymakers

There is usually no clear incentive for political actors to learn how to improve public policy. Learning is often the by-product of bargaining, the effort to secure compliance with the law and rules, social participation, or problem-solving when there is radical uncertainty. This means that in politics we should not assume that politicians, bureaucrats, civil society organizations, experts interact to improve public policy. Consensus, participation, formal procedures, and social certification are more important.

Therefore, we have to learn how to design incentives so that the by-product of learning is actually generated. Otherwise, few actors will play the game of the policy-making process with learning as their first goal. Learning is all around us, but it appears in different forms, depending on whether the context is (a) bargaining, (b) compliance, (c) participation or (d) problem-solving under conditions of high uncertainty.

2. Each mode of learning has its triggers or hindrances

(a) Bargaining requires repeated interaction, low barriers to contract and mechanisms of preference aggregation.

(b) Compliance without trust in institutions is stymied.

(c) Participation needs its own deliberative spaces and a type of participant willing to go beyond the ‘dialogue of the deaf’. Without these two triggers, participation is chaotic, highly conflictual and inefficient.

(d) Expertise is key to problem-solving, but governments should design their advisory committees and special commissions of inquiry by recruiting a broad range of experts. The risk of excluding the next Galileo Galilei in a Ptolemaic committee is always there.

At the same time, there are specific hindrances:

(a) Bargaining stops when the winners are always the same (if you are thinking of Germany and Greece in the European Union you are spot-on).

(b) Hierarchy does not produce efficient compliance unless those at the top know exactly the solution to enforce.

(c) Incommensurable beliefs spoil participatory policy processes. If so, it’s better to switch to open democratic conflict, by counting votes in elections and referenda for example.

(d) Scientific scepticism and low policy capacity mar the work of experts in governmental bodies.

These triggers and hindrances have important lessons for design, perhaps prompting authorities (governments, regulators, public bodies) to switch from one context to another. For example, one can re-design the work of expert committees by including producers and consumers organizations or by allowing bargaining on the implementation of budgetary rules.

3. Beware the limitations of learning

We may get this precious by-product and avoid hindrances and traps, but still… learn the wrong lessons.

Latin America and Africa offer too many examples of diligent pupils who did exactly what they were supposed to do, but in the end implemented wrong policies. Perfect compliance does not provide breathing spaces to a policy and impairs the quality of innovation. We have to balance lay and professional knowledge. Bargaining does not allow us to learn about radical innovations; in some cases only a new participant can really change the nature of the game being played by the usual suspects.

So, whether the problem is learning how to fight organized crime and corruption, or to re-launch growth in Europe and development in Africa, the design of the policy process is crucial. For social actors, our analysis shows when and how they should try to change the nature of the game, or lobby for a re-design of the process. This lesson is often forgotten because social actors fight for a given policy objective, not for the parameters that define who does what and how in the policy process.

1 Comment

Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

One response to “Three ways to encourage policy learning

  1. Pingback: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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