Dunlop, Radaelli, and Trein (eds), Learning in Public Policy

Claire A. Dunlop, Claudio M. Radaelli, and Philipp Trein (editors), Learning in Public Policy: Analysis, modes and outcomes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, xxi + 360 pp, 3 319 76209 8, hbk, £129.99  

The book opens with a series of questions – ‘what exactly do we mean by learning in the context of comparative public policy analysis and theories of the policy process … ? … what do we know about the causes of learning, its mechanisms, how it develops in different policy processes, within and across countries? … what are triggers and hindrances of mechanisms of learning? … what are the consequences of different types of learning for the efficiency of public policy as well as for the normative criteria of the democratic theory we adopt?’ (p. 2). It follows with a working definition: learning is ‘updating of knowledge and beliefs about public policy’ (p. 3); with a history of the study of policy learning that recognises that policy learning always takes place in a context of shifting policy goals and of the incomplete information that results in ‘satisficing’ (p. 7); and with a statement that today’s more theoretical approach to the subject works with four themes: ‘learning and democratic governance; the designing of governance tools to enable policy learning; the link between learning and policy change; and learning as an element of other theories of the policy process’ (p. 15).

Chapters discuss different kinds of learning; different ways to design research; understandings of learning as causal of policy change, and of policy change as causal of learning; comparisons between countries, between policy configurations, between case studies, and between individuals in the policy process; and different methods for analysing policy learning. There are numerous case studies.

The two chapters in the book in which readers of this Newsletter might be most interested will be the one on pensions and the one on ‘active labour market’ policies.

In chapter 4, Christos Louvaris Favois asks to what extent Belgian pension reforms have been due to European Union co-ordination mechanisms, and to what extent to policy learning, particularly via networks of experts and through relationships between researchers and policymakers. The author concludes that policy learning is a prominent causal factor in policymaking where the political tradition is Europhile and consensus-seeking. He suggests that more Eurosceptic countries would be less likely to benefit from policy learning.

In chapter 14, Jan Helmdag and Kati Kuitto review the diversity of active labour market policies in OECD countries, and ask about the extent to which different models are diffused. They find that little research has been done in this area, but they are able to conclude that policymakers learn from others’ experience of active labour market policies where the institutional settings are similar and where countries employ the same welfare state regime. The authors suggest that this shows the continuing relevance of distinguishing between different welfare state regimes. They also suggest reasons for policymakers learning from countries with similar welfare state regimes: the approach does not challenge path dependency, whereas learning from countries with different welfare state regimes might do so; and it is easier to predict political acceptability of proposed changes where welfare state regimes, and therefore public perceptions of welfare provision, are similar.

For those interested in the Citizen’s Basic Income debate, and particularly in questions of feasibility and implementation, these results and conclusions offer three lessons. Firstly, in the absence of a Citizen’s Basic Income in any OECD country, it will be difficult for any OECD country to implement one. Secondly, if any OECD country does implement a Citizen’s Basic Income, then it is most likely to be followed by countries with similar existing welfare state regimes. And thirdly, if OECD countries with differing welfare state regimes implement Citizen’s Basic Incomes, then we can expect rapid implementation across OECD countries.

This well-researched book tackles a significant aspect of policymaking. Its price will means that few students will be buying it, but it will surely be essential for their libraries to make it available to them so that future policymakers understand the ways in which policy learning takes place, and the ways in which it doesn’t.