Tag Archives: lesson-drawing

Teaching evidence based policy to fly: how to deal with the politics of policy learning and transfer

This post provides (a generous amount of) background for my ANZSOG talk Teaching evidence based policy to fly: transferring sound policies across the world.

The event’s description sums up key conclusions in the literature on policy learning and policy transfer:

  1. technology and ‘entrepreneurs’ help ideas spread internationally, and domestic policymakers can use them to be more informed about global policy innovation, but
  2. there can be major unintended consequences to importing ideas, such as the adoption of policy solutions with poorly-evidenced success, or a broader sense of failed transportation caused by factors such as a poor fit between the aims of the exporter/importer.

In this post, I connect these conclusions to broader themes in policy studies, which suggest that:

  1. policy learning and policy transfer are political processes, not ‘rational’ or technical searches for information
  2. the use of evidence to spread policy innovation requires two interconnected choices: what counts as good evidence, and what role central governments should play.
  3. the following ’11 question guide’ to evidence based policy transfer serves more as a way to reflect than a blueprint for action.

As usual, I suggest that we focus less on how we think we’d like to do it, and more on how people actually do it.

anzog auckland transfer ad

Policy transfer describes the use of evidence about policy in one political system to help develop policy in another. Taken at face value, it sounds like a great idea: why would a government try to reinvent the wheel when another government has shown how to do it?

Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if I turned up to the lecture, equipped with a ‘blueprint’ for ‘evidence based’ policy transfer, and declared how to do it in a series of realistic and straightforward steps? Unfortunately, there are three main obstacles:

  1. ‘Evidence based’ is a highly misleading description of the use of information in policy.
  2. To transfer a policy blueprint completely, in this manner, would require all places and contexts to be the same, and for the policy process to be technocratic and apolitical.
  3. There are general academic guides on how to learn lessons from others systematically – such as Richard Rose’s ‘practical guide’  – but most academic work on learning and transfer does not suggest that policymakers follow this kind of advice.

Rose 10 lessons rotated

Instead, policy learning is a political process – involving the exercise of power to determine what and how to learn – and it is difficult to separate policy transfer from the wider use of evidence and ideas in policy processes.

Let’s take each of these points in turn, before reflecting on their implications for any X-step guide:

3 reasons why ‘evidence based’ does not describe policymaking

In a series of ANZSOG talks on ‘evidence based policymaking’ (EBPM), I describe three main factors, all of which are broadly relevant to transfer:

  1. There are many forms of policy-relevant evidence and few policymakers adhere to a strict ‘hierarchy’ of knowledge.

Therefore, it is unclear how one government can, or should, generate evidence of another government’s policy success.

  1. Policymakers must find ways to ignore most evidence – such as by combining ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ cognitive shortcuts – to be able to act quickly.

The generation of policy transfer lessons is a highly political process in which actors adapt to this need to prioritise information while competing with each other. They exercise power to: prioritise some information and downplay the rest, define the nature of the policy problem, and evaluate the success of another government’s solutions. There is a strong possibility that policymakers will import policy solutions without knowing if, and why, they were successful.

  1. They do not control the policy process in which they engage.

We should not treat ‘policy transfer’ as separate from the policy process in which policymakers and influencers engage. Rather, the evidence of international experience competes with many other sources of ideas and evidence within a complex policymaking system.

The literature on ‘policy learning’ tells a similar story

Studies of the use of evaluation evidence (perhaps to answer the question: was this policy successful?) have long described policymakers using the research process for many different purposes, from short term problem-solving and long-term enlightenment, to putting off decisions or using evidence cynically to support an existing policy.

We should therefore reject the temptation to (a) equate ‘policy learning’ with a simplistic process that we might associate with teachers transmitting facts to children, or (b) assume that adults simply change their beliefs when faced with new evidence. Rather, Dunlop and Radaelli describe policy learning as a political process in the following ways:

1.It is collective and rule-bound

Individuals combine cognition and emotion to process information, in organisations with rules that influence their motive and ability to learn, and in wider systems, in which many actors cooperate and compete to establish the rules of evidence gathering and analysis, or policymaking environments that constrain or facilitate their action.

2.’Evidence based’ is one of several types of policy learning

  • Epistemic. Primarily by scientific experts transmitting knowledge to policymakers.
  • Reflection. Open dialogue to incorporate diverse forms of knowledge and encourage cooperation.
  • Bargaining. Actors learn how to cooperate and compete effectively.
  • Hierarchy. Actors with authority learn how to impose their aims; others learn the limits to their discretion.

3.The process can be ‘dysfunctional’: driven by groupthink, limited analysis, and learning how to dominate policymaking, not improve policy.

Their analysis can produce relevant take-home points such as:

  • Experts will be ineffective if they assume that policy learning is epistemic. The assumption will leave them ill-prepared to deal with bargaining.
  • There is more than one legitimate way to learn, such as via deliberative processes that incorporate more perspectives and forms of knowledge.

What does the literature on transfer tell us?

‘Policy transfer’ can describe a spectrum of activity:

  • driven voluntarily, by a desire to learn from the story of another government’s policy’s success. In such cases, importers use shortcuts to learning, such as by restricting their search to systems with which they have something in common (such as geography or ideology), learning via intermediaries such as ‘entrepreneurs’, or limiting their searches for evidence of success.
  • driven by various forms of pressure, including encouragement by central (or supranational) governments, international norms or agreements, ‘spillover’ effects causing one system to respond to innovation by another, or demands by businesses to minimise the cost of doing business.

In that context, some of the literature focuses on warning against unsuccessful policy transfer caused by factors such as:

  • Failing to generate or use enough evidence on what made the initial policy successful
  • Failing to adapt that policy to local circumstances
  • Failing to back policy change with sufficient resources

However, other studies highlight some major qualifications:

  • If the process is about using ideas about one system to inform another, our attention may shift from ‘transfer’ to ‘translation’ or ‘transformation’, and the idea of ‘successful transfer’ makes less sense
  • Transfer success is not the same as implementation success, which depends on a wider range of factors
  • Nor is it the same as ‘policy success’, which can be assessed by a mix of questions to reflect political reality: did it make the government more re-electable, was the process of change relatively manageable, and did it produce intended outcomes?

The use of evidence to spread policy innovation requires a combination of profound political and governance choices

When encouraging policy diffusion within a political system, choices about: (a) what counts as ‘good’ evidence of policy success have a major connection to (b) what counts as good governance.

For example, consider these ideal-types or models in table 1:

Table 1 3 ideal types of EBBP

In one scenario, we begin by relying primarily on RCT evidence (multiple international trials) and import a relatively fixed model, to ensure ‘fidelity’ to a proven intervention and allow us to measure its effect in a new context. This choice of good evidence limits the ability of subnational policymakers to adapt policy to local contexts.

In another scenario, we begin by relying primary on governance principles, such as to respect local discretion as well as incorporate practitioner and user experience as important knowledge claims. The choice of governance model relates closely to a less narrow sense of what counts as good evidence, but also a more limited ability to evaluate policy success scientifically.

In other words, the political choice to privilege some forms of evidence is difficult to separate from another political choice to privilege the role of one form of government.

Telling a policy transfer story: 11 questions to encourage successful evidence based policy transfer  

In that context, these steps to evidence-informed policy transfer serve more to encourage reflection than provide a blueprint for action. I accept that 11 is less catchy than 10.

  1. What problem did policymakers say they were trying to solve, and why?
  2. What solution(s) did they produce?
  3. Why?

Points 1-3 represent the classic and necessary questions from policy studies: (1) ‘what is policy?’ (2)  ‘how much did policy change?’ and (3) why? Until we have a good answer, we do not know how to draw comparable lessons. Learning from another government’s policy choices is no substitute for learning from more meaningful policy change.

4. Was the project introduced in a country or region which is sufficiently comparable? Comparability can relate to the size and type of country, the nature of the problem, the aims of the borrowing/ lending government and their measures of success.

5. Was it introduced nationwide, or in a region which is sufficiently representative of the national experience (it is not an outlier)?

6. How do we account for the role of scale, and the different cultures and expectations in each policy field?

Points 4-6 inform initial background discussions of case study reports. We need to focus on comparability when describing the context in which the original policy developed. It is not enough to state that two political systems are different. We need to identify the relevance and implications of the differences, from another government’s definition of the problem to the logistics of their task.

7. Has the project been evaluated independently, subject to peer review and/ or using measures deemed acceptable to the government?

8. Has the evaluation been of a sufficient period in proportion to the expected outcomes?

9. Are we confident that this project has been evaluated the most favourably – i.e. that our search for relevant lessons has been systematic, based on recognisable criteria (rather than reputations)?

10. Are we identifying ‘Good practice’ based on positive experience, ‘Promising approaches’ based on positive but unsystematic findings, ‘Research–based’ or based on ‘sound theory informed by a growing body of empirical research’, or ‘Evidence–based’, when ‘the programme or practice has been rigorously evaluated and has consistently been shown to work’?

Points 7-10 raise issues about the relationships between (a) what evidence we should use to evaluate success or potential, and (b) how long we should wait to declare success.

11. What will be the relationship between evidence and governance?

Should we identify the same basic model and transfer it uniformly, tell a qualitative story about the model and invite people to adapt it, or focus pragmatically on an eclectic range of evidential sources and focus on the training of the actors who will implement policy?

In conclusion

Information technology has allowed us to gather a huge amount of policy-relevant information across the globe. However, it has not solved the limitations we face in defining policy problems clearly, gathering evidence on policy solutions systematically, and generating international lessons that we can use to inform domestic policy processes.

This rise in available evidence is not a substitute for policy analysis and political choice. These choices range from how to adjudicate between competing policy preference, to how to define good evidence and good government. A lack of attention to these wider questions helps explain why – at least from some perspectives – policy transfer seems to fail.

Paul Cairney Auckland Policy Transfer 12.10.18




Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Policy learning and transfer

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Policy Transfer and Learning

(podcast download)

‘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


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Japan, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy