Tag Archives: policy learning

Policy concepts in 1000 words: Institutional memory

Guest post by Jack Corbett, Dennis Grube, Heather Lovell and Rodney Scott

Democratic governance is defined by the regular rotation of elected leaders. Amidst the churn, the civil service is expected to act as the repository of received wisdom about past policies, including assessments of what works and what doesn’t. The claim is that to avoid repeating the same mistakes we need to know what happened last time and what were the effects. Institutional memory is thus central to the pragmatic task of governing.

What is institutional memory? And, how is it different to policy learning?

Despite increasing recognition of the role that memory can or should play in the policy process, the concept has defied easy scholarly definition.

In the classic account, institutional memory is the sum total of files, procedures and knowledge held by an organisation. Christopher Pollitt, who has pioneered the study of institutional memory, refers to the accumulated knowledge and experience of staff, technical systems, including electronic databases and various kinds of paper records, the management system, and the norms and values of the organizational culture, when talking about institutional memory. In this view, which is based on the key principles of the new institutionalism, memory is essentially an archive.

The problem with this definition is that it is hard to distinguish the concept from policy learning (see also here). If policy learning is in part about increasing knowledge about policy, including correcting for past mistakes, then we could perhaps conceive of a continuum from learning to memory with an inflection point where one starts and the other stops. But, this is easier to imagine than it is to measure empirically. It also doesn’t acknowledge the forms memories take and the ways memories are contested, suppressed and actively forgotten.

In our recent contribution to this debate (see here and here) we define memories as ‘representations of the past’ that actors draw on to narrate what has been learned when developing and implementing policy. When these narratives are embedded in processes they become ‘institutionalised’. It is this emphasis on embedded narratives that distinguishes institutional memory from policy learning. Institutional memory may facilitate policy learning but equally some memories may prohibit genuine adaptation and innovation. As a result, while there is an obvious affinity between the two concepts it is imperative that they remain distinct avenues of inquiry. Policy learning has unequivocally positive connotations that are echoed in some conceptualisations of institutional memory (i.e. Pollitt). But, equally, memory (at least in a ‘static’ form) can be said to provide administrative agents with an advantage over political principals (think of the satirical Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame). The below table seeks to distinguish between these two conceptualisations of institutional memory:

Key debates: Is institutional memory declining?

The scholar who has done the most to advance our understanding of institutional memory in government is Christopher Pollitt. His main contention is that institutional memory has declined over recent decades due to: the high rotation of staff in the civil service, changes in IT systems which prevent proper archiving, regular organisational restructuring, rewarding management skills above all others, and adopting new management ‘fads’ that favour constant change as they become popular. This combination of factors has proven to be a perfect recipe for the loss of institutional memory within organisations.  The result is a contempt for the past that leads to repeated policy failure.

We came to a different view. Our argument is that one of the key reasons why institutional memory is said to have declined is that it has been conceptualised in a ‘static’ manner more in keeping with an older way of doing government. This practice has assumed that knowledge on a given topic is held centrally (by government departments) and can be made explicit for the purpose of archiving. But, if government doesn’t actually work this way (see relevant posts on networks here) then we shouldn’t expect it to remember this way either. Instead of static repositories of summative documents holding a singular ‘objective’ memory, we propose a more ‘dynamic’ people-centred conceptualisation that sees institutional memory as a composite of intersubjective memories open to change. This draws to the fore the role of actors as crucial interpreters of memory, combining the documentary record with their own perspectives to create a story about the past. In this view, institutional memory has not declined, it is simply being captured in a fundamentally different way.

Corbett et al memory

Key debates: How can an institution improve how it remembers?

How an institution might improve its memory is intrinsically linked to how memory is defined and whether or not it is actually in decline. If we follow Pollitt’s view that memory is about the archive of accumulated knowledge that is being ignored or deliberately dismantled by managerialism then the answer involves returning to an older way of doing government that placed a higher value on experience. By putting a higher value on the past as a resource institutions would reduce staff turnover, stop regular restructures and changes in IT systems, etc. For those of us who work in an institution where restructuring and IT changes are the norm, this solution has obvious attractions. But, would it actually improve memory? Or would it simply make it easier to preserve the status quo (a process that involves actively forgetting disruptive but generative innovations)?

Our definition, relying as it does on a more dynamic conceptualisation of memory, is sceptical about the need to improve practices of remembering. But, if an institution did want to remember better we would favour increasing the opportunity for actors within an institution to reflect on and narrate the past. One example of this might be a ‘Wikipedia’ model of memory in which the story of a policy, it success and failure, is constructed by those involved, highlighting points of consensus and conjecture.

Additional reading:

 Corbett J, Grube D, Lovell H, Scott R. “Singular memory or institutional memories? Toward a dynamic approach”. Governance. 2018;00:1–19. https://doi.org/10.1111/gove.12340

 Pollitt, C. 2009. “Bureaucracies Remember, Post‐Bureaucratic Organizations Forget?” Public Administration 87 (2): 198-218.

Pollitt, C. 2000. “Institutional Amnesia: A Paradox of the ‘Information Age’?” Prometheus 18 (1): 5-16.


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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.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

There is no blueprint for evidence-based policy, so what do you do?

In my speech to COPOLAD I began by stating that, although we talk about our hopes for evidence-based policy and policymaking (EBP and EBPM), we don’t really know what it is.

I also argued that EBPM is not like our image of evidence-based medicine (EBM), in which there is a clear idea of: (a) which methods/ evidence counts, and (b) the main aim, to replace bad interventions with good.

In other words, in EBPM there is no blueprint for action, either in the abstract or in specific cases of learning from good practice.

To me, this point is underappreciated in the study of EBPM: we identify the politics of EBPM, to highlight the pathologies of/ ‘irrational’ side to policymaking, but we don’t appreciate the more humdrum limits to EBPM even when the political process is healthy and policymakers are fully committed to something more ‘rational’.

Examples from best practice

The examples from our next panel session* demonstrated these limitations to EBPM very well.

The panel contained four examples of impressive policy developments with the potential to outline good practice on the application of public health and harm reduction approaches to drugs policy (including the much-praised Portuguese model).

However, it quickly became apparent that no country-level experience translated into a blueprint for action, for some of the following reasons:

  • It is not always clear what problems policymakers have been trying to solve.
  • It is not always clear how their solutions, in this case, interact with all other relevant policy solutions in related fields.
  • It is difficult to demonstrate clear evidence of success, either before or after the introduction of policies. Instead, most policies are built on initial deductions from relevant evidence, followed by trial-and-error and some evaluations.

In other words, we note routinely the high-level political obstacles to policy emulation, but these examples demonstrate the problems that would still exist even if those initial obstacles were overcome.

A key solution is easier said than done: if providing lessons to others, describe it systematically, in a form that describes the steps to take to turn this model into action (and in a form that we can compare with other experiences). To that end, providers of lessons might note:

  • The problem they were trying to solve (and how they framed it to generate attention, support, and action, within their political systems)
  • The detailed nature of the solution they selected (and the conditions under which it became possible to select that intervention)
  • The evidence they used to guide their initial policies (and how they gathered it)
  • The evidence they collected to monitor the delivery of the intervention, evaluate its impact (was it successful?), and identify cause and effect (why was it successful?)

Realistically this is when the process least resembles (the ideal of) EBM because few evaluations of success will be based on a randomised control trial or some equivalent (and other policymakers may not draw primarily on RCT evidence even when it exists).

Instead, as with much harm reduction and prevention policy, a lot of the justification for success will be based on a counterfactual (what would have happened if we did not intervene?), which is itself based on:

(a) the belief that our object of policy is a complex environment containing many ‘wicked problems’, in which the effects of one intervention cannot be separated easily from that of another (which makes it difficult, and perhaps even inappropriate, to rely on RCTs)

(b) an assessment of the unintended consequence of previous (generally more punitive) policies.

So, the first step to ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is to make a commitment to it. The second is to work out what it is. The third is to do it in a systematic way that allows others to learn from your experience.

The latter may be more political than it looks: few countries (or, at least, the people seeking re-election within them) will want to tell the rest of the world: we innovated and we don’t think it worked.

*I also discuss this problem of evidence-based best practice within single countries


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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy, tobacco policy