Learning in a crisis? Types of policy learning, policy change, and emergency food assistance in the COVID-19 pandemic

Simone Busetti and Maria Stella Righettini

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a major social crisis, putting people out of work and unable to satisfy primary needs such as affording food. In response, Italy experimented with a programme of emergency food stamps funded by the national government and delivered by municipalities—a form of assistance never experimented with before in the country. Programme implementation followed the peaks of the pandemic waves; it started with the first lockdown in March 2020, was terminated in the summer when COVID-19 cases approached zero, but was restarted in late autumn when the pandemic struck back. The repetition of the programme over a short time and with the same budget offers a unique opportunity to investigate inter-crisis learning, i.e. if and how lessons from the first wave of implementation contributed to reforms in the second delivery. Did administrations learn from the first food stamp delivery and redesign the second round accordingly? These research questions underpin our recent article published in Policy & Politics entitled Policy Learning in a crisis: Lessons learned from the Italian Food Stamp Programme.

Policy learning is a fundamental process for public administrations, but researchers still struggle to conceptualise, observe and measure learning rigorously. In our recent article, we developed some conceptual and methodological suggestions for empirical research. First, we proposed a learning matrix (Table 1).

This research tool classifies the possible outcomes in the relationship between policy learning and policy change; it helps researchers capture types of learning, when learning does or does not lead to change, and if changes happen independently or contrary to the lessons learned.

Second, we isolated the acquisition of knowledge, its translation, and the learning products (Gerlak & Heikkila, 2011; Heikkila & Gerlak, 2013). What’s innovative about this approach is that it observes the learning process in “real-time”. The research followed the learning process in its chronological unfolding by organising two rounds of fieldwork after each delivery. This strategy allowed us to overcome problems related to ambiguities, omissions, overstatements, and faulty memories.

So did municipalities learn and apply their lessons? The article analyses administrative data for 43 cities and provides evidence from three in-depth case studies. The evidence is rich, but two results are worth mentioning.

First, notwithstanding the rapid pace of the crisis, most municipalities innovated in the second delivery and implemented changes due to lessons learned beforehand. In particular, they changed eligibility criteria and design details, such as the amounts and format of the food stamps. Most importantly, the first delivery magnified knowledge acquisition and provided radical inter-programme lessons – long-term, non-incremental learning beyond emergency management. New housing programmes, innovative forms of social assistance, and novel public-private collaboration on food security; all these changes came from lessons learned in the delivery of food stamps. 

Second, a less positive finding was that this window of opportunity for learning closed quickly, demonstrating how specific lessons learned may be lost in reform because they are hard to implement or unlikely to be extrapolated from the crisis to ordinary times. Indeed, instances of outdated learning, such as the identification of new categories of fragility, testify that what administrations learn from managing problems in turbulent times may rapidly become obsolete even in the next (almost identical) crisis.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Busetti, S., & Righettini, M. S. (2023). Policy learning from crises: lessons learned from the Italian food stamp programme, Policy & Politics51(1), 91-112 https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16678318518550

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:

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 https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16574892242428

Zaki, B. L., & Wayenberg, E. (2023). How does policy learning take place across a multilevel governance architecture during crises?, Policy & Politics51(1), 131-155. Retrieved Feb 27, 2023, from https://bristoluniversitypressdigital.com/view/journals/pp/51/1/article-p131.xml

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s