Blog from the winner of Policy & Politics 2021 postgraduate prize

Blog by Doug Cooley, winner of the Policy & Politics 2021 postgraduate prize to the student achieving the highest overall mark on the ‘Power, Politics and the Policy Process’ unit of the Masters in Public Policy at the School for Policy Studies.

Originally published on the Policy and Politics Blog.

I’m Doug Cooley, and have just finished a one-year Masters in Public Policy at the University of Bristol, home to the Policy & Politics journal. I hope to use this MPP as a basis to conduct future academic or practical policy work. During the year, I have focussed my research on various theoretical concepts, including policy transfer, and power structures in the policy process, applying these concepts to neoliberal mechanisms in the Global Financial System, and to the UK’s local governance structures. I am delighted to have won the Policy & Politics prize for achieving the highest overall mark on the unit ‘Power, Politics and the Policy Process’ as part of the MPP programme.

In this post, I highlight a piece of my work which explores the link between policy transfer, which I define as replication of policy instruments between polities, and institutional isomorphism, or the convergence of organisational structures and governance mechanisms. The relative lack of literature on the link is surprising, given how intuitively similar these ideas are, and the different normative connotations of the two concepts. Policy transfer emphasises the benefits of learning between polities, whereas institutional isomorphism is seen as a constraining influence on innovation.

I posit, building on Radaelli (2002), that there may be a complex interconnectedness between policy transfer and institutional isomorphism. I explore this both theoretically, and empirically through the lens of central banking, and suggest this might be an avenue for future research. As Frumkin and Galaskiewicz (2004) argue, it seems likely that policy transfer can result in institutional isomorphism, for example where public sector organisations work together to develop a joint response in times of upheaval.

Furthermore, a reverse causal relationship is also apparent: in line with Stone (2001), the influence of international institutions has caused similar government bodies in different polities to look more and more alike, which has engendered convergence in the actual policies implemented by these institutions.

Comparing central banking structures is a valuable avenue for exploring the link between these two concepts. Marcussen (2005) focussed on central bank independence as an example of policy convergence, whereby, through the 1990s many central banks were structurally reformed, being granted increased independence from political influence.  Moreover, there was remarkable alignment in the timing with which the major central banks implemented Quantitative Easing following the Global Financial Crisis. Policy transfer hence appears to be prevalent in central banking.

I use central banking as a case study to explore the theoretical link between policy transfer and institutional isomorphism.  The use of similar policy instruments by different central banks, and an increased homogeneity of the underlying decision-making structures (such as policy committees), have happened concurrently. I suggest reasons for this, including coercive pressure by influential NGOs, and a desire to appease markets under the neoliberal global economic paradigm. These factors have led policymakers to ensure that their monetary policy mechanisms are in step with the global policy community and led to both policy transfer and to institutional isomorphism in this context.

Central banking, therefore, provides an intriguing example of an area where it appears that policy transfer and institutional isomorphism coincide. The mechanisms through which this occurs, and the causal interaction between the two concepts, indicate valuable future research avenues. This could take the form of close reading of policy documents and data analysis to further identify areas of convergence between central banks, and interviews with policymakers to understand similarities and differences in soft power structures, and how these interact with the convergence of policy instruments.

I hope to be able to explore these important issues further in the future, but in the meantime, I will continue to read others’ research in the area, much of which appears in this journal, such as Overcoming the failure of ‘silicon somewheres’: learning in policy transfer processes by Sarah Giest, Successful policy transfer and public sector reform in developing countries by Lhawang Ugyel and Carsten Daugbjerg, and Diane Stone’s article on Understanding the transfer of policy failure: bricolage, experimentalism and translation.

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