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 will help researchers to understand the process of travel of (policy) innovations across countries better, and as a result, manage these in a better way!

Policy translation defined…

I defined policy translation in my 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 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 have a different essence. 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 in this “travel” of ideas. The second important observation is that we have no idea how a new policy innovation will fare in a new context. The level of uncertainty is huge and the process of politics is key, so we just have to experiment and learn along the way. Something that governments, consultants and politicians find hard to fathom.

Is McDonalds in Ganjlik metro station in Baku a global or a local thing?

And finally, in this globalized world, in which we make simple distinctions between “the global”, “the national”, and “the local”, we may be actually deceiving ourselves. Well, yes, “McDonalds” is a global phenomenon, “Obamacare” is a national one, and your grandma’s apple cake is a tastily local one. But think again…The McDonalds at Ganjlik metro station in Baku is as much a global restaurant as it is a local, Azeri one. Have you seen as many ladies on high-heels with rolling eyes in other McDonalds restaurants in London or Kansas-City? It’s “glocal” really, both global and local. Thus, when we have this process of travel of ideas/innovations, the usual categories which help us deal with space (and scale) become deceptive. And therefore, I speak about the hybridity of scale and place in policy translation.

Policy Translation and Starbucks

With an example of Starbucks in Baku, I want to illustrate what we are trying to study in a context of a new idea landing in a new context. Here is the threefold research agenda:

1) Pay attention to how meanings change when policy innovations travel. For example, how will the newly opened Starbucks coffee shop in Baku be different from Starbucks in Amsterdam and London? How do people view this Starbucks coffee shop in Baku and other places? Are there differences? Why?

2) How much of the process of introduction of Starbuck’s to Baku went according to the plan? Were there enough customers? Did the lay out of the shop work well for the Azeris, who love corners and separated space (claustrophilia), were there any unexpected issues with the government controls and regulations? 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 (such as for ladies to avoid eye-contact with men or suchlike)?

Now, forget about Starbucks and think of any innovations really — business, policy, management or otherwise. And you have the research agenda for policy translation.

Welcome to the world of Policy Translation!

3 Replies to “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. 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?

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