Between policy failure and policy success: Bricolage, experimentalism and translation in policy transfer

Diane Stone

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter re-assesses some of the literature on policy transfer (see for example, Benson and Jordan, 2011; Dolowitz and Marsh, 2000; Evans and Davies, 1999) and policy diffusion (see for example, Dobbin et al, 2007; Meseguer, 2005; Shipan and Volden, 2012) in light of ideas as to what constitutes failure, partial failure or limited success. It is often presumed that when policy transfer occurs internationally, ‘best practices’ or superior standards are being transferred to recipient jurisdictions. Or, in other words, the policy success of one country is exported to another. In a more or less rational process of decision-making, importing governments recognise policy failures or shortcomings within their borders and through processes of evaluation and learning, as well as peer review, seek solutions and adopt reforms based on successful experience elsewhere. The discussion moves away from ‘orthodox’ policy transfer studies – where there is often assumed to be a motivated importer and a willing exporter country – abandoning the linear perspectives of country ‘A’ sending policy to ‘B’ and shifting to a stronger analytical focus on the messy processes of hybrid policies emerging from multiple exemplars, and the messy interpretative processes where importing countries translate and amend transferred policies.

Rather than focusing on policy failure as a starting point for analysis and a prompt for reforms and policy transfer, this chapter first looks at imperfect or uninformed transfer processes as one locus of policy failure. Second, little discussed in the literature is the concept of ‘negative lesson-drawing’ which amounts to learning what not to do. Yet, widespread consensus on what to do, or not do, is often absent when stakeholders have different and divergent perspectives. The various informants intersecting with policy transfer processes at different stages also complicate a neat linear transmission of an intact policy approach or tool. Third, whether ‘transfer’ can be said to have been successfully accomplished is qualified by the extensiveness of hybridity, synthesis, tinkering with models, adaptation and ‘localisation’ (see for example, Mukhtarov, 2014; Stone, 2012).This can result in a transferred policy tool or institution from Country A looking completely different in Country B and operationalised in substantively different fashion than originally conceived. Something is either lost, or learnt, in translation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPolicy Learning and Policy Failure
PublisherBristol University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781447352013
ISBN (Print)9781447352006
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


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