The Lessons of Policy Learning

Dunlop.RadaelliClaire A. Dunlop and Claudio M. Radaelli

The literature on policy learning has generated a huge amount of heat and some light producing policy learning taxonomies, concepts and methods. But yet the ambition to show what learning can offer policy-makers, citizens and societies has remained peripheral. To help things along, we distil the major lessons from the policy learning literature. 

1. In contemporary democracies, incentives and actors are often not aligned with the objective of learning how to improve on 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 organisations and experts interact in order to improve on public policy. Consensus, formal participation procedures, and social certification are more important. The lesson is we have to learn how to design incentives so that the by-product of learning is actually generated – knowing that few actors will play the game of the policy-making process with learning as their first goal. Yet, learning is all around us!

2. Exactly because of these four contexts, different modes of learning have particular triggers or hindrances. Bargaining requires repeated interaction, low barriers to contract and discovery of one another’s preferences. Compliance without trust in institutions is stymied. Participation needs its own deliberative spaces and a type of participant willing to go beyond the dialogue of the deaf – lacking these two triggers participation is chaotic, highly conflictual and inefficient. 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. Scientific scepticism and low policy capacity mar the work of experts in governmental bodies. Irreconcilable beliefs spoil participatory policy processes – in this case it’s better to switch to open democratic conflict, by counting votes in elections and referenda for example. 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). Hierarchy does not produce efficient compliance unless those at the top know exactly the solution to enforce. All this has important applications for design: given the set of triggers and hindrances in a given policy process, the authorities (governments, regulators, public bodies) may want to switch to another context – for example one can re-design the work of expert committees by including producer and consumer organisations or by allowing bargaining on the implementation of budgetary rules.

3. The third lesson is about the limitations of learning. We may get this precious by-product and avoid hindrances and traps, and 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 the wrong policies. Perfect compliance does not provide breathing spaces for 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.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Dunlop, Claire A; Radaelli, Claudio M, The lessons of policy learning: types, triggers, hindrances and pathologies [Open Access], Policy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15230059735521

View the special issue full table of contents here. The whole issue is free to access until 31 May.



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