What is policy diffusion and why should we care?

Policy diffusion (the idea that the policy choices made in a given place and time are influenced by the policy choices made elsewhere) is a topic that I have been researching for some time (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here). One of the leading scholars in this area is Craig Volden. In this interview, he gives an excellent overview of the topic with an emphasis on the American context, drawing especially on his article on the diffusion of anti-smoking policies among US cities (co-authored with Charles Shipan):

A few highlights:

– A specific form of diffusion, policy learning, is implicit in arguments about the benefits of federal structures, namely, that decentralization stimulates policy innovation and the diffusion of best practices. However, what is usually neglected is that diffusion can follow also other, less desirable logics.

– Diffusion should not be reduced to geography. Geographic proximity is often a good proxy for policy interdependence, but it usually cannot be linked to a specific argument about the nature of the diffusion process, or, in other words, what specific mechanism(s) drive it.

– Measuring diffusion and isolating diffusion mechanisms empirically is hard. In fact, Craig could/should have emphasized this point more clearly in the interview. Also, in my opinion the work that he cites is not his most successful in this respect. When it comes to identifying diffusion mechanisms clearly, his best research so far is his study of of Children’s Health Insurance Program, in which he found that states are more likely to imitate programs that are associated with an increase in insurance rates among children. This is quite convincing evidence of learning.

– Anti-smoking policy are an interesting area for the study of policy diffusion. I agree.

– Craig mentions work in progress on the diffusion of campaign ideas among candidates. Sounds cool! I agree that politics should be integrated more explicitly into policy diffusion theories. A couple of articles studying the political dimensions of diffusion have just been published (here and here).

If you have 17 minutes to spare, watch the whole thing.


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