Policy transfer using the ‘gold standard’: exploring policy tourism in practice

John Hudson and Bo-Yung Kim

Policy transfer features prominently in the policy analysis literature, yet relatively little is known about how government officials seek to learn lessons from abroad in practice.This research, based on interviews with officials in government institutes in South Korea who were involved in a series of study visits to the United Kingdom, addresses this knowledge gap using Evans and Davies’ policy transfer network model and the recently developed notion of ‘policy tourism’. We conclude that policy tourism rarely leads directly to policy change but is a valuable part of ongoing processes of policy learning.

Key words: policy transfer • policy tourism • policy transfer networks • policy transfer agents

Introduction: policy transfer’s new wave?

Policy transfer has featured prominently within the policy analysis literature since Dolowitz and Marsh (1996, 2000) catalysed debate with their widely cited framework. In a recent review, Benson and Jordan (2011: 366–8) asked whether the ‘heat’ had gone out of the debate now a wide body of work exists, a suggestion dismissed by Dolowitz and Marsh (2012), Dussauge-Laguna (2012) and McCann and Ward (2012). Benson and Jordan (2012: 333) subsequently conceded: ‘as a research topic, policy transfer is very much alive and kicking’. 2 Indeed, far from there being broad agreement about the nature of transfer processes, ‘various studies in a nascent third generation of literature have criticised the rationalist underpinnings of early transfer approaches and instead stress the complexity of context’ (Stone, 2012: 487). Much of this literature takes intellectual cues from outside of political science (eg, geography [McCann, 2011], urban studies [Cook, 2008; González, 2011], knowledge utilisation [eg, Ettlet et al, 2012] and educational studies [Dunlop, 2009]) and places a stronger emphasis on understanding processes of learning (including Dolowitz himself [2009; Dolowitz et al, 2012]).

Much recent work notes that how officials learn lessons from abroad remains weakly understood (Evans, 2009b;Attard and Enoch, 2011). In particular, it critiques work based on the Dolowitz and Marsh framework for ‘expend[ing] considerable effort on identifying and categorising those involved in the transferring of policy … at the expense of an attention to agency’ (McCann and Ward, 2012: 326). Indeed, the failure of the Dolowitz and Marsh framework to emphasise the role of agents in driving transfer led Evans and Davies (1999; Evans, 2004, 2009a) to devise an alternative framework offering a narrower action-based conception of policy transfer. Their model demands that researchers identify specific agents of transfer and the interorganisational policy transfer networks – ephemeral, ‘ad hoc phenomenon set up with the specific intention of engineering policy change’ (Evans and Davies, 1999: 376) – in which they operate. While Marsh and Sharman (2009: 275) agree with recent critics that much early policy transfer work had a weak notion of agency, they highlight the Evans and Davies model as ‘an honourable exception’. Whether the Evans and Davis framework has a sufficiently detailed model for understanding how transfer agents learn about policy in sites of transfer is a moot point, however. Authors at the heart of the new wave of studies firmly assert that the dominant models of transfer adopt an overly rational model of transfer that fails to account for the bounded rationality of actors in reality (Dussauge-Laguna, 2012a; McCann and Ward, 2012; McCann, 2011). Although Marsh and Evans (2012: 479) challenge claims that early models impute ‘perfect rationality’, Dolowitz (2009: 318) suggests that ‘it is surprising how little attention has been paid to the analysis of learning within the policy transfer literature’ and that the ‘few studies’ that address this ‘contain an implicit belief in policy making as a rational process’.

At a minimum, then, there is some disagreement over how far policy transfer analysts have gone in exploring how agents draw cross-national lessons in practice. Dolowitz (2009: 319) has aimed to correct this deficiency in his recent work, arguing that we might usefully consider ‘the motivations behind the use of foreign information’ and, in particular, distinguish between voluntary drivers where there is a free exploration of relevant knowledge and coercive drivers of learning where there is an external body or force pushing the search for new ideas. He also suggests (2009: 317) that distinctions can be drawn between simple forms of learning (eg, mimicry) and more complex forms of learning (eg, concept formation). Others go further in integrating notions of learning into the analysis of transfer processes. Ettelt et al (2012) draw on ideas from the knowledge utilisation literature to explore how policy officials pick up information, how they process information and how knowledge is then utilised. Dunlop (2009: 294) similarly suggests that theories found in the education literature offer a particularly fruitful avenue for policy transfer research, highlighting in particular the value they place on ‘view[ing] adult learners as intentional actors who choose to learn and aim to control the learning processes in which they become engaged’. 3

In this article we look to build on these recent contributions to policy transfer’s ‘new wave’. We begin by reviewing key themes within this new wave of literature and explore its links with earlier contributions to the field. We then move on to offer our own empirical contribution, which draws on interviews conducted with South Korean policy makers. In so doing, we highlight the strength of the new-wave approach – particularly its nuanced understanding of policy learning via ‘policy tourism’ in which visceral aspects of learning are often emphasised when policy makers look to learn from abroad.


Hudson, J. & B-Y. Kim. 2014. Policy transfer using the ‘gold standard’: exploring policy tourism in practice. Policy & Politics. 42(4). pp. 495-511

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