Thinking about ‘policy movement’ in the analysis of housing policy

In this blog, Adriana Mihaela Soaita, Alex Marsh and Ken Gibb together think the movement of housing policy across space and time has attracted considerable policy and academic interest. But once we accept that policy moves, interesting questions arise. Particularly: what is it that moves? Why do some policies move but others do not?

Through systematic bibliographical searches, we identified 55 relevant housing publications to review in order to answer these questions. This is done fully in our recently published paper (Soaita et al 2021) and in a brief summary here.

What we learned

We could compile a long list of words used in the reviewed publications to describe ideas of policy movement, including: adaptation, adoption, adjustment, contagion, circulation, diffusion, dissemination, failure, fast transfer, flow(ing), imitation, innovation, migration, mimesis, mobility, mutation, replicability, transfer, transferability, translation, travelling, tourism. We agree with Pawson & Hulse (2011 p.115) that:

“…scholars studying policy trends across countries are faced with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to theories, concepts and mechanisms, … which reflect their origins in fields as diverse as management studies, comparative public policy, and comparative politics.”

To navigate this diversity, we found it valuable to cluster these studies into the groups of policy diffusion (PD), policy transfer (PT) and policy mobility (PM), based on their similar perspectives within group and differences between groups. In our sample, these clusters were represented by five, 30 and 20 studies, respectively.

In terms of methods, for instance, there were differences between groups, PD mobilizing both quantitative and qualitative analyses; PT preferring traditional interviews, case-studies and historical analyses; while PM employing a range of methods which can be described as eclectic (and often unreported). What they understand by policy also differ. With the risk of simplifying, PD tends to understand policy as legislative acts; PT as policy programmes embedded in more or less formal institutions; and PM as a much more disaggregated set of practices, knowledge and devices, particularly of the political elite. We aimed not to adjudicate value – there were some theoretically (un)sophisticated and empirically (un)sturdy approaches in all clusters – but to learn from their different ways of seeing the world.

Conditions for policy mobility

Across the 55 studies, we observed five key conditions that enable mobility. First, there was shared recognition that policy changes when moves from a place to another. This view was most strongly expressed in PM studies, acknowledged but ultimately ignored in PD studies, and sometimes seriously engaged with in PT studies:

“…policy transfer is not an ‘all or nothing’ process but represents a continuum from learning about a policy to adapting it to fit new contexts to implementing it and evaluating it, or deciding that it is not applicable at all (Parsell et al. 2013p.188).”

The second condition is ideological: policy moves across places and actors of similar ideological sensitivities. From this point of view, (Lancione et al’s (2007 p.7) emphasis is illuminating:

we propose to understand HF [Housing First] as a policy in the dual sense of the word: both as a programme of measures to be implemented (the policy, as practice) and as a system of thought (the political, as a philosophy of intervention).

The third insight, strongly associated with PT studies, is institutional: policy typically moves across places of similar institutional structures, hence caution is needed when thinking of policy transfer:

A successful policy in one spatial or political context will not necessarily be successful in another context and, in any case, may only be able to be transferred if there are comparable legal, organisational and financial arrangements in place (Murie & Van Kempen 2009 p.192).

The fourth condition, associated mostly with the PM literature, refers to the legitimizing power of various devices of policy-marketing that ‘sell’ policy from one place to another, such as professional magazines, the urban visions of master plans, counting practices. Such legitimizing devices tend to hide the vested interests within a policy and discourage citizens’ participation in policymaking.

Finally, the fifth insight, coming from across clusters, refers to ‘windows of opportunity’. These may refer to the suddenly auspicious alignment of some of the above elements, or new possibilities to shift the agenda opened by a crisis:

These barriers to adoption are much weaker at times of crisis. What constitutes a crisis is not easy to define … but by its very nature a crisis tends to encourage radical action. A precursor to such action is often to look for help from other places (Gilbert 2004 p.200).

While a focus on policy movement is at the heart of this area of research, we found some engagement with immobile policies in terms of failed (or lack of any attempt to) transfer across jurisdictions, past and present. On reflection, if a policy is not designed initially to be anything more than a solution to a specific issue at a given place and time, should we really be critical if it turns out to be less mobile than say other more transferable policies which are simpler and sometimes less effective in their original setting? We argue also that more clarity is needed to understand the failing of policy to move over its ability to adapt inasmuch it has become something new.

We believe these insights are particularly relevant to the COVID-19 global crisis, when certain sets of policies and the virus are travelling hand-in-hand. This is a learning time for policymakers, professionals and academics alike.


Date: March 3, 2021 9:00 am

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