This post forms one part of the Policy Analysis in 750 words series. It draws on work for an in-progress book on learning to reduce inequalities. Some of the text will seem familiar if you have read other posts. Think of it as an adventure game in which the beginning is the same but you don’t know the end.
Policy learning is the use of new information to update policy-relevant knowledge. Policy transfer involves the use of knowledge about policy and policymaking in one government to inform policy and policymaking in another.
These processes may seem to relate primarily to research and expertise, but they require many kinds of political choices (explored in this series). They take place in complex policymaking systems over which no single government has full knowledge or control.
Therefore, while the agency of policy analysts and policymakers still matters, they engage with a policymaking context that constrains or facilitates their action.
Two approaches to policy learning: agency and context-driven stories
Policy analysis textbooks focus on learning and transfer as an agent-driven process with well-established guidance (often with five main steps). They form part of a functionalist analysis where analysts identify the steps required to turn comparative analysis into policy solutions, or part of a toolkit to manage stages of the policy process.
Agency is less central to policy process research, which describes learning and transfer as contingent on context. Key factors include:
- Limited attention. Policymakers must ignore almost all of the policy problems for which they are responsible.
- Limited choice. Policymakers inherit organisations, rules, and commitments.
- Limited central control. Policymaking responsibility is spread across many levels and types of government.
- Limited policy change. Most policy change is minor, made and influenced by actors who interpret new evidence through the lens of their beliefs.
Analysts compete to define problems and determine the manner and sources of learning, in a multi-centric environment where different contexts will constrain and facilitate action in different ways. For example, varying structural factors – such as socioeconomic conditions – influence the feasibility of proposed policy change, and each centre’s institutions provide different rules for gathering, interpreting, and using evidence.
The result is a mixture of processes in which:
- Learning from experts is one of many possibilities. For example, Dunlop and Radaelli also describe ‘reflexive learning’, ‘learning through bargaining’, and ‘learning in the shadow hierarchy’
- Transfer takes many forms.
How should analysts respond?
Think of two different ways to respond to this description of the policy process with this lovely blue summary of concepts. One is your agency-centred strategic response. The other is me telling you why it won’t be straightforward.
There are many policy makers and influencers spread across many policymaking ‘centres’
- Find out where the action is and tailor your analysis to different audiences.
- There is no straightforward way to influence policymaking if multiple venues contribute to policy change and you don’t know who does what.
Each centre has its own ‘institutions’
- Learn the rules of evidence gathering in each centre: who takes the lead, how do they understand the problem, and how do they use evidence?
- There is no straightforward way to foster policy learning between political systems if each is unaware of each other’s unwritten rules. Researchers could try to learn their rules to facilitate mutual learning, but with no guarantee of success.
Each centre has its own networks
- Form alliances with policymakers and influencers in each relevant venue.
- The pervasiveness of policy communities complicates policy learning because the boundary between formal power and informal influence is not clear.
Well-established ‘ideas’ tend to dominate discussion
- Learn which ideas are in good currency. Tailor your advice to your audience’s beliefs.
- The dominance of different ideas precludes many forms of policy learning or transfer. A popular solution in one context may be unthinkable in another.
Many policy conditions (historic-geographic, technological, social and economic factors) command the attention of policymakers and are out of their control. Routine events and non-routine crises prompt policymaker attention to lurch unpredictably.
- Learn from studies of leadership in complex systems or the policy entrepreneurs who find the right time to exploit events and windows of opportunity to propose solutions.
- The policy conditions may be so different in each system that policy learning is limited and transfer would be inappropriate. Events can prompt policymakers to pay disproportionately low or high attention to lessons from elsewhere, and this attention relates weakly to evidence from analysts.
Feel free to choose one or both forms of advice. One is useful for people who see analysts and researchers as essential to major policy change. The other is useful if it serves as a source of cautionary tales rather than fatalistic responses.
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning
Teaching evidence based policy to fly: how to deal with the politics of policy learning and transfer
Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the intersection between evidence and policy transfer
Policy learning to reduce inequalities: a practical framework
Three ways to encourage policy learning
Epistemic versus bargaining-driven policy learning
The ‘evidence-based policymaking’ page explores these issues in more depth