1st May – 31st July 2021 highlights collection on policy diffusion

Sarah_Brown_credit_Evelyn_Sturdy
Image credit: Evelyn Sturdy at Unsplash

Sarah Brown
Journal Manager, Policy & Politics

This quarter’s highlights collection focusses on the popular theme of policy diffusion, bringing new analyses offering fresh perspectives on this extensive area of scholarship.

In our first featured article on policy diffusion, Daniel Mallinson continues his efforts in offering the most comprehensive analysis to date on how policy innovation diffuses across American states. Although hundreds of articles have tackled the fundamental question of why innovative policies spread, none has fully grappled with the scope of their disparate results.

To fill that gap, this article presents a state-of-the-art systematic review and meta-analysis of how policy innovation flows from US state to US state and the average effects of commonly used variables in the study of policy diffusion. In doing so, it highlights important biases in the research and makes recommendations for addressing those biases and increasing international collaboration on policy innovation research and results.

Following reflections on the importance of policy diffusion research, it concludes with recommendations for a future diffusion research agenda.

Offering a different perspective on the same theme of policy diffusion, our second article on drivers of health policy adoption analyses why some countries rapidly adopt policies suggested by scientific consensus while others are slow to do so. The authors, Matthew Kavanagh, Kalind Parish and Somya Gupta, report findings that challenge existing scholarship, which generally argues that policy divergence is best addressed through greater evidence and dissemination channels. By contrast, they argue that, while studies of policy diffusion, transfer and translation provide important insights about the mechanisms through which policy ideas travel, we need to grapple more fully with which structural factors shape the conditions under which policy will travel and at what speed.

Accordingly, their findings show that the institutional political economy of countries is a stronger and more robust predictor of health policy adoption than either disease burden or national wealth. In their study of HIV treatment policies, they find that factors such as the formal structures of government and the degree of racial and ethnic stratification in society predict the speed with which new medical science is translated into policy, while the level of democracy in those countries does not.

In conclusion, the article contributes important new insights into the drivers of policy transfer and diffusion, suggesting new strategies for securing the adoption of ‘evidence-based’ policies.

And finally, it would be impossible to publish a collection focussing on diffusion without the inclusion of Diane Stone’s seminal article on policy diffusion and transfer which is one of our top downloaded and top cited of all time: Understanding the transfer of policy failure: bricolage, experimentalism and translation.

In a strong contribution offering much needed conceptual development of the policy transfer literature to move beyond the standard success/failure dichotomies, this paper considers how we should understand policy failure from the point of view of policy diffusion. It argues that what this lens offers is a perspective on policy that considers how it has been assembled, and how it is often constructed through activities like lesson learning or outside imposition. The paper is critical of suggestions that we can observe policy transfer failure because the process of policy transfer is necessarily always partial, or incomplete, or involves some form of policy mutation or some other aspect. This means we virtually never see some form of perfect ‘cloning’ of a policy between different places. Instead, the author suggests that the literature needs to move towards embracing notions of assemblage and bricolage, to engage with policy transfer as an open-ended process if it is to be understood properly.

In this way, it reassesses the literature of policy transfer and diffusion in light of what constitutes the failure or limited success of policies. Instead, it argues that policy ‘translation’ provides a better conceptual framework for comprehending the learning and policy innovations that come with the trial and error inherent in policy-making.

I hope you enjoyed reading this selection of our strongest articles on policy diffusion. Why not send us your next article submission on this topic or on any other of the diverse themes that fit within the scope of Policy & Politics? Read our editorial statement at New editorial statement for the Policy & Politics journal | Policy and Politics Journal (policyandpoliticsblog.com) to find out what we’re looking for. Hope to hear from you soon.

Highlights collection – free to access until 31 July 2021:

Growth and gaps: a meta-review of policy diffusion studies in the American states
Daniel J. Mallinson

Drivers of health policy adoption: a political economy of HIV treatment policy
Matthew M. Kavanagh, Kalind Parish and Somya Gupta 

Understanding the transfer of policy failure: bricolage, experimentalism and translation
Diane Stone

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