Analysing the contextual factors that promote and constrain policy learning in local government

Kristin Taylor, Nathan Jeschke & Stephanie Zarb

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In spite of the best efforts of government, sometimes policies do not work as designed. As scholars of the policy process and citizens in a representative democracy, our normative expectation is that government should learn when policies do not work to improve outcomes for communities. This is especially true in the wake of a natural disaster. Disasters can serve as an opportunity for governments to engage in policy learning by updating beliefs about policies and learning lessons about policy tools, instruments, and politics. Often, disasters can reveal physical and social vulnerabilities and gaps in preparedness that unevenly distribute the risk of damage within a community. In our recent article in Policy & Politics , we investigate which conditions constrain or promote policy learning. Understanding these conditions is of critical importance in gaining a better understanding of why some governments learn to improve policies after a disaster and some do not.

We conducted a study of policy learning in 12 communities across Southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. At the outset, we suspected that communities that had more experience, more capacity, and more narrow jurisdictions would be more likely to experience policy learning. Through the course of the study, we had the opportunity to speak with 22 local government officials who were responsible for disaster policy in their communities. The quotes from our conversations with these leaders appear as evidence of policy learning in our recently published article . However, these statements and our analysis fall short of conveying a prominent theme that emerged throughout our field research: all the local government officials we met with were fiercely committed to serving their communities and were working earnestly to reduce the risk of disaster damage for the most vulnerable.

Throughout the course of our research and in our Policy & Politics article , we found a mix of simultaneously surprising and confirmatory findings. We discovered that prior experience with a disaster did not promote policy learning. In fact, we found no evidence of policy learning in communities that had considerable disaster experience. For students of policy learning, this is a particularly important finding because it suggests that contextual factors can limit beliefs and knowledge of policies, tools, and strategies. We also discovered, rather unsurprisingly, that policy learning is promoted in communities with high levels of per capita income. For our study, per capita income served as a proxy for capacity and resources to learn. For policy learning scholars, this finding suggests that there are potential gaps in learning across different communities based on resources. This is a concern for democratic governance, particularly in subnational contexts.

We strongly encourage our colleagues who are interested in policy learning to continue this examination of the contextual factors that promote and constrain policy learning. In doing so, we can enhance our understanding of policy learning, improvement, and democratic governance that protects vulnerable communities, regardless of experience and resources.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Taylor, K., Jeschke, N., & Zarb, S. (2023). ‘Analysing the contextual factors that promote and constrain policy learning in local government,’ Policy & Politics.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Nohrstedt, D. (2022). When do disasters spark transformative policy change and why?, Policy & Politics, 50.3.

Heikkila, T., & Jones, M. D. (2022). How diverse and inclusive are policy process theories?1, Policy & Politics, 50.1.

Mallinson, D. J. (2021). Growth and gaps: a meta-review of policy diffusion studies in the American states, Policy & Politics, 49.3.

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