The Policy Transfer Question

by Ken Gibb

When can policy makers safely apply the learning of other countries’ apparently successful policies? Why is policy transfer so common and popular within different Governments of varying hues? This post reflects on the desire to take a form of intervention in one setting and see if it will work in another.

I am interested in this because there seems to be lots of it going on in housing as well as much talk of policy transfer in the Scottish independence debate, to name but two areas. I think it raises lots of dangers for policymaking but also offers the possibility for a much more rounded and coherent assessment of ones’ own policy system. Cynics also argue that it is cheap in terms of development but it can involve lazy and uncritical thinking. Spotting policy transfer failure is of course also a popular pastime.

Policy transfer, substantively and as an academic field of study, has grown hugely since the 1970s, reflecting the growing interest in comparative work in discrete policy areas, greater access to ideas via think tanks, supranational organisations and the declining cost of international communications. Academics like Rose, Evans, Dolowitz and Marsh have worked through the general questions of lesson-learning and policy transfer, while housing specialists like Donnison, Doling, Kemeny, Whitehead, Stephens, Oxley, Turner, Maclennan and Ronald have explored comparative housing research, including the efficacy or otherwise of policy transfer of housing interventions.

It is still a rich literature with a recent special issue in Policy and Politics and the whole question generally given proper space and overage in the textbooks (such as Hudson and Lowe’s excellent book on Understanding the Policy Process for Policy Press). The big questions concern whether transfer to country B can work given its and country A’s key institutions, context, policy processes, state-market relations, welfare regimes and the like. There is also a suggestion that weaker but still useful lessons can be learnt about what makes the transfer of the idea or its exploration in country B worthwhile of further work. There is also much interest in whether national regimes and indeed policy frameworks are converging or diverging – since that has, among other things, implications for future transferability.

Policy transfer and a willingness to think in these terms and look for such opportunities can seem near ubiquitous. All the more reason to go about it very carefully, as a few illustrations from policy questions operating at different scales I am interested in, directly demonstrate.

First, work on the nature of poverty traps and the persistence of deprivation. I have a colleague who does behavioural economics and is interested in whether changing aspirations can alter the likelihood of poverty persisting. He has been doing interesting experiments involving interventions that seek to raise the aspirations of sex workers in Kolkata, India. He is now asking whether the same methods might be used to research the persistence of poverty and deprivation in Global North urban contexts like in Glasgow. He is not saying that the development settings are irrelevant, far from it. Rather he is asking whether the role of internal or endogenous poverty traps are important generally and also whether the experimental  (treatment and control group) methods might be a useful way forward.[i]

Second, can nations from the same region but vastly different scales and stages of development transfer financial policies? I have an exchange doctoral student, Min Wang, who is examining the appropriateness of the Chinese government adopting a version of the Singapore Central Provident Fund scheme as a way to finance housing through savings. It turns out that there are a number of problems with the application to China (there called the Housing Provident Fund), especially in terms of size, institutional context, clarity of objectives and design.

Third, are there housing finance innovations that can be translated from international experience (North America, Australia, Western Europe and within the UK) to different parts of the UK? In a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we wrestled with the implications of the policy transfer and comparative housing literature. We made this transferability a key criterion in intervention assessment and also took the view that some policies were simply worth further basic investigation in a UK context without in any sense committing to them.

Fourth, are housing policies converging or diverging within the UK after devolution? From a Scottish perspective, I think it is perfectly reasonable to see examples of convergence and divergence, and not just because significant parts of the system (tax, benefits, finance and public finance rules) are reserved. I looked at this in more detail in a paper in Housing Finance International[ii] but, for me, the question that is at least as interesting is the appetite for transfer in both directions between Scotland and England e.g. our National Housing Trust model or grant-funding new council housing, or, thinking about national social rent policies in Scotland?

Finally, do these transfer ideas have currency and operate at more local scales e.g. can lessons or experiences from one community planning partnership or local authority inform what might happen in another? Don’t contextual variations and nuances apply at these more local scales too?

The caution that should apply to uncritical application of ideas across boundaries and specific contexts should not prevent looking seriously at ideas from other places. If this makes us look at our own systems, what makes them tick, what the barriers and path dependencies are, this can only be good for policy making per se. The old saw that by looking at other countries we can understand ourselves better has an obvious degree of truth in it. The claims made by both sides in the Scottish independence referendum campaign might reasonably reflect on this when they make such bold or pessimistic inferences about Scandinavia, Ireland and indeed England, Scotland and the UK.

[i] For more information, see Professor Sayantan Ghosal’s paper in the Conversation:

[ii] Gibb, K (2102) ‘Is Scottish housing policy diverging from policy in England? The complexity of devolution in practice.’ Housing Finance International, Vol  26 (4), pp. 21-26.