How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crises?

Bishoy L. Zaki, Ellen Wayenberg

Policy learning and crises

Over recent years and with a rising number of crises and complex policy issues, policymakers are increasingly engaging in systematic and continuous policy learning. These policy learning processes aim at reaching better understandings of policy issues and their contexts. One of the aims of this learning is to develop better ways of solving societal challenges (through forms of technical learning) or consolidating and cultivating political power (through political learning). In other words, policymakers face problems that are difficult to solve, so they seek out knowledge and information from different sources in order to learn how to effectively solve these problems.

With its longstanding tradition, policy learning research has illuminated several aspects, mainly focused on explaining how policy actors learn, what lessons they come out with, and the role that learning processes play in policymaking. During crises, policy learning can contribute to effective crisis responses. However, it can also cause confusion or induce policy failure.

Policy learning, crises, and the pyramid of governance

One of the aspects that has had less focus is how these policy learning processes take place across different levels of a multilevel governance system (i.e., national, and subnational levels), especially during crises, despite the critical role that such multilevel decentralized structures play. This issue is the focus of our recent research article published in Policy & Politics entitled How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crises?

This is something that we have seen recently during the COVID-19 crisis where regional and local governments played a substantial role in providing social and healthcare support to citizens. Yet, do these subnational governments learn? How do they learn? And what are the outcomes of their learning?

In our recent article, we explore how learning takes place across the national-subnational spectrum using a two-year case of Belgium during the COVID-19 crisis. Why the COVID-19 crisis? Mainly, because such a large-scale and long-term crisis allows for learning to take place across different levels of government (vertically), and across different regions within a country (horizontally). This gives us the opportunity to explore several variations of how learning takes place.

How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crises?

Our findings provide one of the first accounts of how learning takes place across different levels of government during long-lasting, large-scale crises such as COVID-19 (i.e., creeping crises). Our analysis shows that learning takes place across multiple levels: national (federal) and subnational (regional and local). However, policymakers do not necessarily learn the same way. At the apex (the federal level), policymakers are under public pressure, so they have little control or leeway over how to learn. Hence, they engage in systematic learning from renowned experts. Here, learning is formalized, publicized, and very well structured. However, as we move down the governance pyramid where subnational policymakers are not under the same amount of pressure, we find that different approaches to learning emerge. Some policymakers are keen to learn voluntarily from experts, while others are less so inclined.

Yet, what seems to shape learning behaviours across different levels? Several factors seem to be at play…

At the levels where there is less pressure on policymakers to learn, preferences towards learning vary. Interestingly, governors have varying role perceptions. While some feel that they should be experts, and that their role should be to learn and disseminate knowledge to their municipalities, others disassociate with this role and believe they should be more focused on implementing guidelines. Their past experiences and professional backgrounds also play a role. Governors who come from academic backgrounds seem to be more inclined towards learning from experts, as opposed to those from other backgrounds. Mayors’ preferences towards learning (as elected officials) on the other hand, seem to be shaped by what citizens in their specific localities expect from them (e.g., to have more of a practical focus or to base their decisions on expertise).

So, what does that mean for practice?

Our findings show that learning is not homogenous during crises. Policymakers have different learning preferences that are emphasised when they have more leeway to determine how they learn. In the absence of an overarching framework that shapes how learning takes place (e.g., who do we learn from? How can we interpret scientific policy advice? How do we understand policy problems and formulate solutions?), we can end up with varying “learning islands” leading to fragmented and incoherent policy learning and policymaking approaches, especially during crises.

To learn more about this research, and how it contributes to better policy learning in practice, read our article: How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crisis?

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Zaki, B. L., & Wayenberg, E. (2023). How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crises?, Policy & Politics51(1), 131-155

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:

Busetti, S., & Righettini, M. S. (2023). Policy learning from crises: lessons learned from the Italian food stamp programme, Policy & Politics51(1), 91-112

Taylor, K., Jeschke, N., & Zarb, S. (2023). Analysing the contextual factors that promote and constrain policy learning in local government, Policy & Politics51(1), 113-130

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