What is Policy Translation?

Ideas make the world go round and many ideas go around the world themselves. They become contagious and can be found in many countries around the world. Think of fast-food restaurants, certain business practices, such as cubicle office spaces, or government policies, such as e-government. The travel of ideas across countries is very common, yet we understand little about how it happens and what drives it. Policy translation is a framework, which helps researchers understand the process of travel of (policy) innovations across countries better, and as a result, manage these in a better way.

Policy translation defined…

Mukhtarov defined policy translation in his 2014 piece as follows:

“modification of policy ideas and creation of new meanings and designs in the process of cross-jurisdictional travel”.

Simply speaking, it means that the office cubicle in the U.S. will be different from an office cubicle in, say, Azerbaijan. They will have different functions, different role in the workers’ lives, different meaning to those who use them. Thus, when innovations, not least policy innovations (such as, for example, ban on smoking in public spaces) travel across countries, they necessarily change their meanings, function, sometimes to an extent that they may turn into something completely different. Policy translation studies this process and its outcomes in order to help making this process more manageable.

But changing meaning and function is only one thing. Two more important things happen as ideas travel. We have little power to predict how a policy innovation will fare in a new context. The level of uncertainty is huge and the process of politics is key here, so we just have to experiment and learn along the way. Something that governments, consultants and politicians work hard to conceal because saying “we don’t know” does not sell. Another element that is important is that the travel of ideas challenges our ideas on “here” and “there” as well as “global”, “national” and “local”. One needs to learn to see these concepts as fluid, dynamic rather than stable. For this last point, see the McDonalds example below.

Is McDonalds, say, in Suriname, a global or a local thing?  We make simple distinctions between “the global”, “the national”, and “the local”.  “McDonalds” is a global phenomenon, “Obamacare” is a national one, and your grandma’s apple cake is a local one. But think again…The McDonalds anywhere in the world is as much a global restaurant as it is a local one. The way people are dressed, interact and consume is different around the world. At the same time, there are standardized services that are similar regardless where one is.  It’s “glocal” , both global and local. When we have travel of ideas/innovations under investigation, the usual categories which help us deal with space (and scale) may not be that useful.

How to apply a policy translation research framework?

1) Pay attention to how meanings change when policy innovations travel. For example, how will the newly opened Starbucks coffee shop in a new location, say, in Southeast Asia be different from Starbucks in Amsterdam and London? How do people view this Starbucks coffee shop in an Asian city ? Are there differences? Why?

2) How much of the process of introduction of Starbucks to that city went according to the plan? Were there enough customers? Did the lay out of the coffee shop work well for the local population? In other words, what is the micro-politics of this process?

3) How did the global rules and norms (such as asking for a client’s name, smiling at clients, saying regular, and I hear, patented phrases such as “may I offer you something sweet with your coffee”) mix with the local cultures and norms?

Now, forget about Starbucks and think of any innovations really — business, policy, management or otherwise. When they cross boundaries, similar issues take place. Policy translation as a framework may help you think of these in a new way.

5 thoughts on “What is Policy Translation?

  1. Very informative, well written and straight forward piece. Thank you. As a doctoral student working on community forest policy translation at local level in Africa and outcomes for local democracy this could be more helpful if followed by some references for citation and further read. Would that be possible?- Thank you.

    1. Dear Mawa, thank you for your comment and good words! And for your suggestion, of course! I will follow up to make a list of suggested literature for those interested in the subject!

    2. Dear Mawa. If you check the papers under “Research and Publications” you will see that there is a lot published on the subject. You are welcome also to email me for a further discussion. Where are you pursuing your PhD?

  2. Quite good insights on policy translation. Sooner I will be embarking on my doctoral study and I intend to do research on translation of an existing public policy in a particular country in relation to a particular population within the public service. What’s your take on this one?

    1. Dear Kennedy,
      Thank you for your post. Did you start your Ph.D.? I hope it’s going well. One may study all kind of issues with Policy Translation as a lense. My advise would be to engage with the literature, see some of my papers under “Research and Publications” of follow through the reference list. Good luck and keep in touch!

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