How do policy makers learn?

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

A discussion session during the SADC executive course

I know, I know. This kind of question can yield ‘clever’ answers like ‘they don’t’. But before any of you comes up with an answer like that, stop and think for a bit; and…did you catch onto the fact that most of social science is about understanding, hence it is ultimately about increasing control. Being so, all social science is – directly or indirectly – linked to policy and policy making.

Having figured this one out, and inhabiting a research field that is closely related to policy, I would suggest that we take the question about how policy makers learn seriously. There are three reasons for this that I can think of: 1) most funding for social sciences is very likely to come from users (policy and management) in the future; this may be for research or executive courses; 2) enlightened policy makers are much easier to work with and they contribute much more value to our societies; and 3) enlightened policy makers don’t just happen; they develop through learning.

For many years now, I have worked closely with policy makers in both research and executive education. Yep, I love theory and I strive to develop it where possible – this is where my heart is. My (understands my employer’s) bread and butter, however, is often in research that is funded by policy makers and intended to contribute value to their work (or be useful). Through about twenty years of doing research for policy, I have had only one clear-cut moment of glory (understand ‘the lightheaded feeling that I have really contributed value and enabled social change’) – when in mid-1990s Prof Luke Georghiou and I did a survey of research equipment: one of the outcomes – a calculation of how much investment the UK government need to make in research equipment and facilities were we to keep at the forefront of science –  resulted in considerable increase of the science budget shared between the Wellcome Trust and the government.

These and similar reflections made me ask myself the question

How do policy makers learn?

And it seems to me that, just like most people, policy makers learn in four principal ways, namely:

  • From other people (this is when we lecture, deliver a talk, or simply explain, advise and instruct others);
  • Through other people (this is when we watch what others are doing and learn how to match situations and behaviour);
  • From book and other artefacts; and
  • From their experience.

Here lies the problem! Looking at these four point, it is not difficult to see that at least three of them are somewhat problematic. Policy makers come from variety of educational backgrounds and they are not necessarily well versed in the domains of their remit. In other words, at least initially, policy people dealing with science don’t necessarily understand its detailed workings. Obvious vehicles for learning would be attending an executive course, commissioning expert opinion (consultancy) and/or reading some of the literature on the topic.


  • executive courses are usually short and lecture based (research shows that generally people forget about 85% of a lecture before they leave the lecture theatre);
  • consultancy is generally seen as a ‘regular economic transaction’ – knowledge product is exchanged for an amount of money; this doesn’t provide a platform for continuous, working interactions and co-production which can enable ‘learning from others’; and
  • most specialised academic writing is difficult to comprehend.

This, while possibly the case, is not very useful if we aim to come up with provisions that enable learning. Hence, I decided to re-frame the question as:

Why do policy makers fail to learn?

And there may be a number of reasons (factors) preventing learning but there seems to be a pattern emerging around the following:

  1. Lack of trust – the people from and through whom learning can occur are not sufficiently trusted.
  2. Lack of interest – often attending an executive course may not be the idea of the person attending; furthermore in many cases it is not straight forward to link the content of an executive course and the everyday tasks people perform.
  3. Lack of relevance – it is not immediately obvious how the content of the course informs policy making. Often this is an expected outcome of the disconnect between academics and policy makers.
  4. Lack engagement – there are no provisions for engagement or these are not taken up.
  5. Lack of time – these people are usually very busy and they cannot devote the time necessary to gain some, albeit limited, mastery of their ‘object’.

Instead of doing a ‘conceptual piece’ on how these can be ‘corrected’ I’ll tell you briefly about a different kind of executive course that the MIoIR is running in Africa.

Science, Technology and Policy Course for the SADC Countries

This course aims to develop policy making capacity in the SADC countries acting on the initiative by the Ministers of Science and Technology in the region who asked South Africa to lead developments. UNESCO is supporting it by providing funding and actively following progress.

Prof Alaphia Wright

Prof Alaphia Wright

This STP course is targeted at high and mid-level policy makers; they were nominated and their ministries (organisations) undertook to ensure participation and enable conditions for engaged learning (more about this one later). The course is led by Profs Edler and Laredo and involves five senior academics from MIoIR (Flanagan, Uyarra, Rip and Nedeva) and colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe.

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session :)

Prof Laredo after a mentoring session 🙂

You can read more about the course here. Now let me move on to how is this course different.

  • This executive course takes place over nine months (September 2012 to July 2013) not couple of days.
  • There are three ‘contact’ weeks taking place in South Africa. these are spaced through the length of the course and in between mentors (academics) are in regular and intensive virtual contact with their mentees.
  • This course (the ‘contact’ weeks) is residential which means that there are ample opportunities for socialising
  • Lecturing takes part mainly during the first of the three weeks and sessions cover key issues in policy. Concerted effort was made to ensure that the sessions are interactive, engaging and the links between the material covered and policy were made apparent.
  • Discussion is encouraged during and after the sessions. For instance, the second week of the course consisted mainly of face-to-face discussions between mentors and mentees.
  • Participants were supported in identifying and researching topics that are pertinent to their jobs. They will present their ideas during the third ‘contact’ week of the course.
Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Prof Edler during a mentoring discussion

Now let me, in light of the points set out above, get back to the reasons why policy makers fail to learn.

  1. Lack of trust – this course offers the framework conditions for building trust through the length, outside the course interactions and mentoring structures. Also, the involvement of the University of Zimbabwe brings to the table local knowledge so that the argument ‘it doesn’t work like this where I am from’ is difficult to sustain.
  2. Lack of interest – this is dealt with in three ways: by explicitly linking the content and everyday policy concerns; by engaging participants in discussions and by asking them to  research a topic that is key to their work activities.
  3. Lack of relevance – as above.
  4. Lack of engagement – this is remedied by allowing ample time for discussion and by setting up a project that has clear milestones and end result.
  5. Lack of time – this is still hard but…the fact that participants will present their work during the last ‘contact’ week of the course focused the mind.

I would be very interested to hear what do you think about policy people learning but it seems to me that accounting for the reasons why they don’t learn when designing learning platforms may be a productive way to follow.

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