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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

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‘Policy learning’ describes the use of knowledge to inform policy decisions. That knowledge can be based on information regarding the current problem, lessons from the past or lessons from the experience of others. This is a political, not technical or objective, process (for example, see the ACF post). ‘Policy transfer’ describes the transfer of policy solutions or ideas from one place to another, such as by one government importing the policy in another country (note related terms such as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy convergence’ – transfer is a catch-all, umbrella, term). Although these terms can be very closely related (one would hope that a government learns from the experiences of another before transferring policy) they can also operate relatively independently. For example, a government may decide not to transfer policy after learning from the experience of another, or it may transfer (or ‘emulate’) without really understanding why the exporting country had a successful experience (see the post on bounded rationality). Here are some major examples:

BOX 12.1

It is a topic that lends itself well to practical advice; the ‘how to’ of policymaking. For example, Richard Rose’s ‘practical guide’ explores 10 steps:

Rose 10 lessons rotated

The descriptive/ empirical side asks these sorts of questions:

From where are lessons drawn? In the US, the diffusion literature examines which states tend to innovate or emulate. Some countries are also known as innovators in certain fields – such as Sweden and the social democratic state, Germany on inflation control and the UK on privatization. The US (or its states) tends to be a major exporter of ideas. Some countries often learn consistently from the same source (such as the UK from the US). Studies tend to highlight the reasons for borrowing from certain countries – for example, they share an ideology, common problems or policy conditions. ‘Globalization’ has also reduced practical barriers to learning between countries.

Who is involved? Apart from the usual suspects (elected officials, civil servants, interest groups), we can identify the role of federal governments (for states), international organizations (for countries), ‘policy entrepreneurs’ (who use their experience in one country to sell that policy to another – such as the Harvard Business School professor travelling the world selling ‘new public management’), international networks of experts (who feed up ideas to their national governments), multinational corporations (who encourage the ‘race to the bottom’, or the reduction of taxes and regulations in many countries), and other countries (such as the US).

Why transfer? Is transfer voluntary? The Dolowitz/ Marsh continuum sums up the idea that some forms of transfer are more voluntary than others. ‘Lesson-drawing’ is about learning from another country’s experience without much pressure (see the book to explain why I scribbled out some of the text!). At the other end is coercion. They place ‘conditionality’ near that end of the spectrum, since the idea is that countries who are so desperate to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund will feel they have no choice but to accept the IMF’s conditions – which usually involves reducing the role/ size of the state (although note the difference between agreeing to those conditions and meeting them). ‘Obligated transfer’ is further to the left because, for example, member states sign up to be influenced by EU institutions. Indirect coercion describes countries who feel they have to follow the lead of others, simply to ‘keep up’ or to respond to the ‘externalities’ or ‘spillovers’ of the policies of the other country (they are often felt most by small countries which share a border with larger countries).

figure 12.1 DM continuum

What is transferred? How much is transferred? Transfer can range from the decision to completely duplicate the substantive aims and institutions associated with a major policy change, taking decades to complete, to the vague inspiration (or the very quick decision not to emulate and, instead, to learn ‘negative lessons’).  It can also be a cover for something you planned to do anyway – ‘international experience’ is a great selling point.

What determines the likelihood and success of policy transfer? For an importing government to be successful, it should study the exporting country’s policy – and political system – enough to know what made it a success and if that success is transferable. Often, this is not done (governments may emulate without being particularly diligent) or it is not possible, since the policy may only work under particular circumstances (and we may not always know what those circumstances are). Much also depends on the implementation of policy, particularly when the transfer is encouraged by one organization and accepted reluctantly by another (such as when the EU, with limited enforcement powers, puts pressure on recalcitrant member states).

These questions are best asked alongside the general questions we explore in policymaking studies, including:

  • Bounded rationality and Incrementalism – do governments engage in trial-and-error and learn from their own mistakes first?  Is learning and transfer restricted to the ‘most similar’ regions because there is no point in learning from countries radically different from our own?  Do some governments emulate without learning? Is transfer from another, more innovative, government a common rule of thumb?
  • Multi-level Governance – does the existence of more policymaking arenas produce more innovation and a greater demand for learning? Or, does the diffusion of power undermine the ability of a central government to adopt policies from others?
  • Punctuated equilibrium – is transfer a rare opportunity produced by the sudden and unpredictable attention to new ideas?

Further Reading:

I explore these issues (and Rose’s advice) in a paper examining what Japan can learn from the UK’s experience of regionalism. It includes a discussion (summarised from Keating et al – Paywall Green) of the extent to which policy converges in a devolved UK and how much of that we can attribute to transfer and/ or learning:

Keating et al 2012 summary from japan paper

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Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Bounded Rationality and Incrementalism

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Note: I don’t write so much about incrementalism in the 2nd edition. If you would like more of the background, please see see chapter 5 in the 1st ed of Understanding Public Policy

A classic starting point in policy studies is to compare ideal-types (which might be ideals to aspire to) with the real world. The classic example is comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality. The idea is that elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process (aims are identified, the means to achieve those aims are produced and one is selected) and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility.

Its comparator is ‘bounded rationality’ (coined by Simon) which suggests that policymakers’ ability to make and implement decisions is more problematic. We question our ability to separate values and facts. We note that policymakers have multiple, often unclear, objectives which are difficult to rank in any meaningful way. We wonder if the policy process is so ordered and linear (or if policymakers sometimes select a solution that already exists to a problem defined for them). We know that policymaking organizations have limited knowledge and research capabilities; that they have to use major shortcuts to gather a limited amount of information in a limited time. We know not to seek policymaking perfection, but something that is good enough. We don’t ‘maximize’ – we ‘satisfice’.

We can use this discussion to go down two main paths. The first is empirical/ descriptive. Lindblom’s famous conclusion is that bounded rationality helps cause incrementalism[i]. Organizations use simplifying strategies, such as limiting policy analysis to a small number of policy choices which diverge incrementally from the status quo (based on the argument that it is better to analyse a few issues comprehensively than seek comprehensive coverage of all issues). They use trial and error. Rather than ranking preferences in advance, they test their willingness to trade off one aim for another when they make policy decisions. They use an incremental strategy as a rule of thumb: if a previous policy commanded widespread respect then policymakers recognise the costs (analytical and political) of a significant departure from it.

If we follow this empirical path, we want to know if policymaking, and its outcome, is incremental. This picture of policymaking seemed to be common wisdom for some time: Lindblom’s critics often bemoaned the problems with the outcome, not his analysis. We can also identify related terms such as path dependence, policy succession and inheritance before choice which, albeit in different ways, highlight the dependence of current policy decisions on those made in the past. More recently, punctuated equilibrium theory suggests that incrementalism is not the full story. Rather, we can identify a mix of ‘hyper-incrementalism’ and radical change; a huge number of small changes and a small number of huge changes. Studies of policy diffusion also suggest that bounded rationality often prompts governments to emulate the (often radical) policies of other governments without fully understanding their success. So, we can now identify, in the literature, a common focus on bounded rationality as a starting point, but some very different conclusions about policy change.

The second path is normative/ prescriptive. Lindblom’s early work was often criticised for selling incrementalism as good practice: focusing on radical options is futile if no-one will countenance them anyway; policy in a series of steps reduces serious mistakes; and, existing policy is good if based on wide agreement. It prompted intense debate, focused on the extent to which incrementalism was appropriate when governments had a mandate for, or a need to engage in, radical change. Lindblom’s thinking also changed to some extent, to reflect his diminishing belief that the US political system was pluralistic and therefore a vehicle for policy based on widespread agreement.

This debate took place when Lindblom was contrasting policymaking in the US with the Soviet Union. Incrementalism was partly an antidote to ‘central planning’. While that specific debate has aged, we can still identify a broader concern with the centralization of power. The ideal of comprehensive rationality includes an assumption that power is held centrally by policymakers whose decisions are carried out by neutral bureaucrats or other organizations. In other words, a central decision maker should control the policy process; power should reside in the hands of elites at the top/ the centre at the expense of other actors. This raises debates about the balance between central and local government power, particularly when both have electoral mandates. We should also consider our need to balance authority at the top with local knowledge at the bottom; to balance the delegation of policymaking to people who know best how to do it with the maintenance of a meaningful degree of accountability for the outcomes. For example, you can see this debate play out in studies which apply complexity theory to public policy. In practice, the descriptive/ prescriptive elements of these discussions become blurred. One may argue for particular arrangements not only based on principle but also because they appear to work.

Much of the postwar debate took place in the idiosyncratic US, but incrementalism (or, in some cases, inertia) has been identified as a defining feature in systems such as Japan, Italy and Germany. It is tempting to associate incrementalism with particular types of system, such as ‘consensus democracies’ or systems with diffused power and multiple veto points – in contrast to the ‘majoritarian’ or ‘top-down’ UK. Yet, incrementalism’s key features – bounded rationality; the necessity of bargaining and compromise between actors who have different information, different interests and conflicting views; and, the need to build on past policies – may be ‘universal’.


[i] Policymaking through non-radical steps. Note that the meaning of ‘incrementalism’ is not always clear and that Lindblom is not its only exponent – look out for Wildavsky too.

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