Tag Archives: policy convergence

Policy change, convergence and divergence since Scottish devolution #POLU9SP

divergence difference

Policy change is already difficult to measure and explain, but in Scottish politics there is an added dimension. It is common to gauge policy change according to the extent to which Scottish Government policy diverges from UK Government policy. This comparison can only take us so far, so I will begin with a discussion of divergence then take us back to Scottish policy change in its own right.

What might cause convergence and divergence?

Here is a list of possible causes, which we can discuss at more depth in the lecture (and can you think of others?):

Reasons for policy divergence (or difference):

  • Different social attitudes
  • Different parties in government
  • Ministers trying to make a difference
  • The larger role of public sector professionals in Scotland
  • Different policy conditions
  • A different policy process or style

Reasons for convergence (or similarity):

  • Public expenditure and borrowing limits
  • Overlaps between reserved and devolved policies
  • A ‘single market’ in the UK and the need to avoid unintended consequences
  • The same party of government
  • A similar role for key professions
  • Incrementalism, inertia, wicked problems and other reasons to limit policy change
  • Similar problems and ways of thinking (and learning)

box 9.2

Policy divergence: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

We sometimes describe policy divergence in Scotland as ‘evolution, not revolution’ (although evolution is not the opposite of revolution). In other words, devolution did not produce a radical departure from the past, in the way that we might associate with former Soviet countries. Rather, there is a mix of high profile ‘flagship’ policies mixed with a lot of fairly innocuous updating of the statute book. The big ones from 1999-2007 include:

  • ‘free’ personal care for older people
  • the reduction of higher education tuition fees
  • the abolition of the healthcare internal market
  • mental health legislative reforms
  • the introduction of the single transferable vote in local elections
  • the ‘smoking ban’ (does this example count?)

Then the big SNP government polices included:

  • the abolition of higher education tuition fees (and prescription charges)
  • the minimum unit price on alcohol
  • the reform of criminal justice sentencing
  • the pursuit of renewable energy projects and rejection of new nuclear energy stations
  • the pursuit of new ways to fund capital projects (e.g. schools and hospitals)

So, we have three images of the much-talked-about-before-devolution phrase ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

The first relates to the idea that Westminster had insufficient time for Scottish legislation, and so devolution would present a new opportunity for policy innovation and new ideas. Yet, perhaps after a honeymoon period, public policy did not appear to change dramatically or mark dramatic policy divergence from the past or the rest of the UK.

The second relates to devolution as a way to avoid policy innovation: to step off the train associated with the constant top-down reform agenda of the UK government. This second image is often a better guide, and we can link it to (a) the idea that devolution in 1979 represented a missed opportunity to cushion the blow of Thatcherism, and (b) current debates on the extent to which devolution can actually protect Scotland from the worst excesses of UK policy (I am paraphrasing the arguments of other people here).

The third relates more to policymaking than policy: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ may relate to how Scottish institutions process policy than the actual policy outputs and outcomes (the ‘Scottish policy style’ or ‘Scottish approach’). As we have discussed in several lectures, this is not necessarily a small difference (particularly if you focus on Greer/ Jarman’s account of the differences in the use of ‘policy tools’).

Don’t forget existing differences

We miss a lot if we just focus on divergence, because much Scottish policy reinforces or maintains existing policy differences, such as when the Scottish Government reformed its curriculum and addressed teacher-local authority relations. Can you think of other examples?

Don’t forget policy change

We miss a lot of policy change if we only focus on divergence from UK government policy. For example, maybe the governments innovate and emulate each other (they don’t though – see box 9.2).

Or, they do very similar things or don’t quite manage to do different things:

  • Housing stock transfer and (until recently) the ‘right to buy’
  • Policies to address so called ‘anti-social behaviour’
  • Attempts by the Scottish and UK Governments (often in vain) to address ‘wicked problems’ such as social inclusion/ exclusion and socio-economic inequalities
  • Public health reforms such as tobacco control
  • Agricultural and fisheries policies (although can you identify key differences?)
  • Land taxation
  • Policies in development, such as an expansion of pre-school care and the very long gestation of local income tax

box 9.4

In the next lecture, we can also go into more depth on the idea of policy change, to identify a difference between (for example) policy divergence as a set of policy choices and their actual effect.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

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