[1300 Words; 10 Minute Read]. The post explores what is involved and could be considered when transferring policy from one context to another. At the outset, policy transfer refers to the process by which actors borrow policies developed in one setting to develop programmes and policies within another – it is an important area to study because the transfer is a common phenomenon. Five key aspects of policy transfer writing are now considered, they involve (1) diffusion; (2) rational frameworks; (3) lesson drawing; (4) structure–agency; and (5) metaphors and discourse. For example, how and why would the idea and policy of a Capital Gains Tax be considered in one context and not in another. The answer goes deeper than ideology.

  • Diffusion

Diffusion is a key area of writing that ties in with policy transfer and can aid in understanding what policy transfer ‘is’ (by contrast). Diffusion is described as the chronological and geographic patterns of the adoption of a policy innovation across government units. Furthermore, it is seen as a case study and process-oriented, focusing on how, when, and why adopters use diffused information – rather than on networks or patterns of diffusion Put more simply, diffusion research focuses on how innovations, policies, or programmes spread from one government entity to another.

In further distinguishing ‘diffusion’ from ‘policy transfer’ the contrasting research elements can be applied when exploring either concept (see Table 1). For instance, with regards to policy transfer, it uses few cases, has a qualitative methodology, cannot be generalised (due to the initial generalisations being made), little ability to generate models, and have no use in providing predictions from work created. In contrast, diffusion concepts use many cases, are quantitative in research approach, can be generalised and predicted, whilst being able to generate complex mathematical models.

Table 1

  • Rational Frameworks

Further conceptual frameworks for rationale have been applied in the literature on policy transfer. A significant policy transfer framework is demonstrated in Table 2. An important element of this framework is the spectrum (or continuum) of ‘why transfer?’ in the first place. The framework uses a ‘why transfer?’ continuum ranging from ‘want to’ voluntary reasons such as to draw lessons, to ‘have to’ coercive reasons such as to directly impose a policy.

Table 2:

  • Lesson Drawing

‘Lesson drawing’ in particular has voluntary features that are seen as perfectly rational, as well as including a mixture of features that have more of bounded rationality. Perfect rationality in this instance means that no thought is diluted, whereas mixed bounded rationalities would be more compromised as the concept is developed. Other mixtures in the transfer would be the amendments made to a policy by international pressures such as fitting any other multi-lateral regulatory agreements.

More coercive features of policy transfer at the other end of the spectrum could affect the eventually transferred policy package. For instance, the direct imposition of a fixed rate of tax or the inability to force a policy through due to strong pressure group activity could change its appearance. Further coercive effects that will have to be considered in a policy transfer is the influence of party lines that are being pursued such as a low tax and low spend agenda. Coercion may also originate from the pressure of think tanks and lobbyists that have been pioneering experts in initiating the policy for transfer.

Lesson drawing is a concept integral to the ‘why transfer continuum?’ and is one that can help explain policy transfer in more depth. Definitions of lesson drawing have been described as the explicit effort by one government to learn from the experience of others. With regards to selecting country case studies 5 key points are highlighted: these involve their

  1. Ideological compatibility;
  2. similarities in resources;
  3. psychological, not geographical proximity;
  4. availability of evidence;
  5. and interdependence.

Further prescriptive components are thought when using conditions that may increase success in applying any lessons that can be drawn when transferring policy. These conditions are whether the policy has:

  1. a clearly defined objective;
  2. has a single goal;
  3. has a simple design;
  4. is based on tested social, political, and technical knowledge;
  5. there is flexibility in relating the elements of a programme;
  6. and that political leaders are committed.

In comparison, policy transfer is seen as being a greater task than lesson drawing in terms of forming clear outputs for practical use. It is argued that whilst ‘lesson drawing’ offers the potential for comparing how policy-makers behave with the expectations of ‘lesson drawing’, ‘policy transfer’ is even broader in scope, encapsulating ‘lessons’, other forms of ‘voluntary’ adoption and ‘coercive’ processes. ‘Policy transfer’ is very difficult to disentangle from other forms of policy-making and researchers will find it very difficult to form clear outputs of practical use for assessing claims about changes in the importance of ‘transfer’. However, policy transfer is not dismissed as being too complex to handle if there is a focus on certain elements of the ‘policy transfer’ concept and develop ing clearer outputs and measures of ‘transfer’ might be one way to develop the approach.

  • Structure–Agency

Structure and agency as a conceptual approach is another theoretical lens in which to analyse policy transfer. For one, an understanding of how individuals and groups interact with institutions will be important in understanding how policy transfer is affected. Structure and agency as sociological and ontological concepts can both be defined as having behavioural influence in society. Structures as recurring patterns of arrangements can have influence, such as the organizational structure of government or a private development company. Operating within or amending these structures are individuals, or agents, that may via their own free will be changing the course of whether to accept a new policy that could be transferred.

Some caution is appropriated with this approach as there is a danger of assuming that transfer processes are essentially rational activities. Moreover, it is thought that institutionalist thinking is likely to be increasingly compromised in a rapidly changing de-institutionalizing policy environment.

  • Metaphors and Discourse

Analysis of metaphors is a fifth alternative framework to understand policy transfer with respect to spatially targeted economic development policy. The general reasoning for English as a first language in many countries in part enables the analysis of how phrases and terminology are replicated or differ in documents that embody transfer policy. Principally the difficulties faced in these particular policy examples are thought to rest in differences of societal and political meanings to the policies underscore the difficulties of cross-national transfer of development approaches.


The implications of assumptions for practice from this article are that policy transfer is useful to understand a specific initiative in concepts that go beyond shared culture and similar experiences. As a policy is transferred from place to place, we demonstrate that (1) some policies simply diffuse over boundaries, and increasingly so as digital communication can transfer ideas in seconds. (2) Frameworks help rationalise decisions as to whether policy voluntarily or more forced. Further, the role of stakeholders is vital (3) drawing lessons. The (4) structural intricacies of institutions are essentialto observe in what rules (especially fiscal rules) are set in place, and from an agency view, the power relations of individuals (especially by public executives as well as private developers and civil leaders) continue to mold and shape these rules in (5) metaphor and discourse. It is hoped that this theory can help better understand why and if policies transferred will be beneficial or detrimental to application in another contextual place.

Further application of this theory to urban policy can be found in the following reference:

Squires, G. and Lord, A. (2012). ‘The transfer of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as an urban policy for spatially targeted economic development initiatives’ in Land Use Policy, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 817-826

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