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The traveller’s guide to policy learning

27 September 2023



When it comes to policy learning success, the most critical variables are those that influence how well a learned-lesson travels. An article in the European Policy Journal provides a traveller’s guide to policy learning, presenting a new concept labelled dynamic capacity. This captures the way in which learned-lessons need to move across time and space, and consolidate downwards into the institutional fabric of a policy system. The guide can help build better theories of policy learning and encourage more effective learning practices.

The role of dynamic capacity

The key variables that determine whether we learn from policy implementation policy learning success have little to do with the fundamentals of learning. When it comes to effectiveness, there are a series of more important variables that surround learned-lessons and influence their dynamic capacity. This capacity is the article’s central focus, and it is defined as:


The ability of a lesson to move across space and time and receive active support from those who have the authority to implement it.


Dynamic capacity has three attributes. It is the ability of a lesson to:

  • Move across space in ways which take it through organisations and across organisational borders.
  • Receive acknowledgement and active support from would-be implementers,
  • Absorb downwards into the institutional fabric of a policy space in ways which preserve it across time.

For every lesson generated in one time and place, it needs to be acted upon by others in a different time and place if it is to have effects. This means that dynamic capacity is relevant to all forms of policy learning regardless of context.

About the research

A research project designed to map and explore lesson-learning in disaster management in Queensland offered an empirical opportunity to consider whether dynamic capacity was relevant to explaining specific lesson-learning processes and outcomes.

Disaster management is a policy area in which ideas, policies and actors are focused on lesson-learning. The ability to learn from a disaster event and to make policy reforms between events can improve public safety and enhance resilience. Policy learning and disaster management therefore go hand in hand.

The research targeted a sample of disaster management interviewees as the primary means of data collection. The sample had two features. First, each interviewee had responsibilities for lesson-learning within their organisation and, second, the sample spanned all the relevant lesson-learning organisations within this community of practice.

Getting over travel fears

Lesson-learning actors are reluctant to send lessons out beyond their own organisational borders because of a belief that lessons about failures have the potential to invite criticism and blame. There is therefore a need to push back against perceptions of risk that can be attached to lesson sharing practice. This risk aversion is a powerful disincentive and when it comes to making learned lessons move, no-blame communications are essential.

Knowing your destination

Often those who engage in policy learning assume that the identification of a lesson means that it will automatically be learned and institutionalised elsewhere. This is not always the case and those that generate lessons rarely think about how and where they need to travel. More needs to be done to think prospectively about the steps, stages and functions of learning that exist beyond the publication of a lesson.

The importance of translation

When lessons move across multiple policy audiences, they are translated and reinterpreted. Translation capability and the quality of specific translation efforts can therefore be a facilitator or a barrier when it comes to dynamic capacity. The need for translation within and across organisations was widely recognised by interviewees.

These actors work hard to translate knowledge so that it can move upwards within their own organisations and find approval at the highest levels. Much work goes into translating policy language into operational language so that can then be understood on the front-line.

Finding good accommodation

This means finding an agency who is willing to accept responsibility for the implementation of a lesson that has been generated elsewhere. This is not as easy as it seems. Lessons would be better able to find good accommodation if they were formulated with a greater understanding of the capacities that do (and do not) exist amongst implementers.

The long-term stay

Once support has been found and implementing action ensues, the lesson needs to stop moving. It needs to put down anchor and settle in for the long haul. The direction of travel here is downwards as the lesson needs to be absorbed and institutionalised into a policy space in way that will ensure its survival. Long-term institutionalisation requires lessons to be embedded through formal encoding and cultural remembering.

The bottom line

There are connections between individual learning at the micro-level and (inter)organisational learning at the meso-level. ‘Hard’ institutional processes matter as they represent the channels through which learned lessons can move. Without these institutional avenues, lessons would have nowhere to go once they cross the borders of the organisation that formulated them. However, inter-organisational meaning making that translates and (re)assembles lessons represents the real medium that converts individual learning into collective learning within these institutional avenues.

Want to read more? 

The traveller’s guide to policy learning – Alastair Stark and Jenny van der Arend, European Policy Journal, August 2023

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Published Date: 27 September 2023