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The limitations of 'policy transfer' and 'lesson drawing' for public policy research

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The concepts of 'lesson drawing' and 'policy transfer' have become increasingly influential ways of understanding public policy, especially in the UK. However, the main proponents of the concepts, Rose for 'lesson drawing' and Dolowitz and Marsh for 'policy transfer', have difficulty in providing convincing answers to three questions that are important for them and those engaged in similar studies. First, can they be defined as distinctive forms of policy- making separate from other, more conventional, forms? 'Lesson drawing' is very similar to conventional accounts of 'rational' policy-making and 'policy transfer' is very difficult to define distinctly from many other forms of policy-making. Second, why does 'lesson drawing' and 'policy transfer' occur rather than some other form of policy-making? The proponents of 'policy transfer' put a set of diverse and conflicting theories under a common framework, obscuring differences between them. Third, what are the effects of 'lesson drawing' and 'policy transfer' on policy-making and how do they compare to other processes? Whilst the effect of more 'lesson drawing' seems to be more 'rational' policy-making, the effect of 'policy transfer' on policy 'success' and 'failure' is less clear. Dolowitz and Marsh redescribe aspects of 'failure' as different forms of 'transfer' rather than giving independent reasons for outcomes based on features of transfer processes. Overall, particularly in the case of 'policy transfer', researchers may be better off selecting from a range of alternative approaches than limiting themselves to these conceptual frameworks.

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