Features: November 22nd, 2002

Policy Making In The Global Commons

By Geoff Mulgan

Reproduced by permission of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies

Britain has never before been so willing to import ideas and learn from other countries. Tax credits and early years support from the US, welfare to work from Scandinavia and restorative justice from New Zealand are just a few of the more prominent examples.

But the phenomenon of learning from other countries is not new. From the first states in the middle East and China we find evidence that their neighbours tried to copy techniques – how to organize armies; temples; tax collection; administration – motivated by a mixture of admiration and fear that if they didn’t keep up they would be conquered.

Throughout history the really useful innovations have spread quickly – some spread through conquest, some because they caught the imagination of the public and others still because they captured the imagination of governments – income tax being a good example.

What spreads is a concept that through example, and through a rather blunt process of natural selection, diffuses widely. These concepts are not the same as the application. All policy ideas have to be adapted to different cultural and institutional environments, improved and reshaped until sometimes their origins are unrecognizable.

Concepts usually spread because of the power of the system of which they are a part. Sometime these are intellectual disciplines or paradigms. Economics is remarkably dominant now, and classical history played a similar role a century ago providing a common intellectual frame of reference. Looking ahead, it is highly likely that other disciplines will diffuse ideas in the same way. Ecological and systems ideas may prove a strong contender, and it is possible that in 10-20 years time we will all automatically see systems of matter, energy and waste where today most policy makers see markets of consumers and producers.

Great Minds think alike

Sometimes the systems which spread concepts around the world are ideological, with the most successful example of recent years being neo-liberalism. Born in the academy, the ideas of Austrian economics were slowly matured, waiting for the time when the policy environment would right – a moment which arrived in the UK in the 1980s and then in the 1990s in many former communist countries. Then, when may of their ideas started running into problems (with rising crime, social exclusion and public distrust) the way was cleared for the ideas of centrist social democracy and the’ third way’, which spread with remarkable speed from western Europe to countries as diverse as Brazil and Chile, South Korea and Poland.

In some cases theory has led practice. But in matters of public policy the reverse is often true. During the 1920s and 30s Keynesianism in different forms was separately discovered in New Zealand; Scandinavia and in Roosevelt’s US, prior to being formalized by Keynes himself and becoming the conventional wisdom of the post-war era. In this case, as with much science, the story is in part one of parallel invention – great minds thinking alike.

What works

Today a good deal of conceptual innovation is taking place through practice, with relatively few areas in which academics develop theoretical frameworks which others then apply. More often, the theorists are following behind, trying to make sense of what the practitioners are doing. This may be particularly true because of the rather non-ideological climate in which policy is now being made. Most government profess to be more interested in what works than what makes ideological sense – and that means that there is likely to be a greater willingness to see practice rather than theory as the best source of ideas.

For most of the 20th century the UK tended to see itself as a policy exporter, now, however, we accept that we can learn from others. We live in a world where people much more naturally compare themselves to others – and see much more quickly if our trains work worse, our CDs cost more or our streets have more homeless people on them.

Positive deviants

Within the UK, transparency and benchmarking have been remarkably powerful tools for promoting a demand for new ideas or better practices in the public service – if your school or hospital is doing notably worse than others in comparable areas you can no long hide behind excuses. The same applies internationally. It can be a demanding discipline, but it can reveal surprising gaps and problems. For example on productivity, we know we are worse than the US but don’t often acknowledge that we are even further behind Belgium and other European countries by some counts.

The great value of benchmarking is that it forces us to ask why we are doing worse than we might like, and what we can learn from others, particularly the ‘positive deviants’ – the countries which are doing better than might be expected. Hopefully, too, it reduces the risk of copying bad policies – the ones with impressive PR but which don’t actually work

If benchmarking provides a vital starting point it is then important to ask what type of policy field is being considered. Broadly speaking there are three kinds of policy field, each of which requires a different king of approach.

Stable policy fields

First are the areas where knowledge is settled – governments broadly know what works, there is a strong evidence base and the most that can be expected is some incremental improvement. The professional bodies and leading experts can generally be relied on to give good advice, we can fairly easily benchmark ourselves against the best, and good innovations tend to spread fairly quickly though formal networks.

Policy fields in flux

The second category covers the areas where most people recognize that things need to change – where once successful policies are no longer working. In these areas there is often a great deal of fertility and experimentation. However, evidence, which is by its nature backward looking, is often not very useful. It may reveal the weaknesses of policy, but it is unlikely to give convincing evidence about what works. The professions in these fields are often much part of the problem as the solution, with the most promising innovations likely to come from the margins. Comparisons are essential, but explorations provide insights.

Inherently novel policy fields

The third category consists of areas of inherent novelty – biotechnology and its regulation; e-government; privacy on the net and new forms of governance at the European or global level. No one knows for sure what works or what doesn’t because these are virgin territories. The pioneers are likely to make the most mistakes, the experts will only be just ahead of the amateurs and the task of good government is to keep a very close eye on what is and isn’t working so that we can at least reduce the proportion of mistakes we make.

In each of these categories we need to think differently about both where to look, and how. During the 1980s and 1990s much of the trade in policy ideas was dominated by the English –speaking world. One reason was laziness (we are not known for our prowess in reading Finish or Malay). Another was the power of the English language media which can sometimes indirectly foster an assumption on the part of opinion formers that everything worth knowing is already available in English, or the erroneous view that the Anglo-American way must be the best.

Geoff Mulgan is Director of the Strategy Unit in the Cabinet Officer.