Learning in post-recession framing contests: Changing UK road policy

Witting, A., & Moyson, S. (2015). Learning in Post-Recession Framing Contests: Changing UK Road Policy. In N. Schiffino, L. Taskin, C. Donis, J. Raone (Eds.), Organising After Crisis. The Challenge of Learning (pp. 107-130). Pieterlen, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

Abstract of the chapter

What role does the individual and collective cognition of policymakers play in the relation between economic crises and policy change? Post-recession road building plans in the United Kingdom (1988-2011) are a particularly illuminating case to demonstrate the complex and volatile nature of the causal interdependencies between crisis, individual learning, collective learning, and policy change within a particular collective setting. In this Chapter, we analyse the statements of all policymakers who participated to the meetings of the Commons Transport Committee (CTSC) – a crucial collective structure in the policymaking process of this sector. We interpret them according to a set of theoretical expectations about the relation between crises, paradigm changes and policy change.

The case study shows that changes in the dominant paradigms occured over time, within the CTSC. In addition, paradigm changes were clearly connected to policy changes: during each period of time, policy decisions were undoubtedly inspired by the dominant paradigm among the members of the CTSC.

Our analysis suggests that paradigm changes resulted from policy learning. However, the role that individual learning and collective learning played was very different. During each period of time, there was a fair amount of policymakers supporting different policy paradigms who participated to the meetings of the CTSC. Overall, the intensity of debates was high and policymakers had many opportunities to challenge their pre-existing beliefs by discussing with colleagues who did not share their views on road policy (“between-paradigm” ties). Despite those opportunities, at the individual level, most of the participants to the CTSC sessions did not change their policy beliefs very much over time. At best, they softened them. In fact, CSTC participants mostly discussed with other participants sharing the same policy paradigm (“within-paradigm” ties). However, there was a collective dynamic resulting from rules, routines and other structural aspects through which the CTSC, as a group, supported changes in policy paradigms. This suggests that collective structures enhancing the intensity and quality of debates are conducive to policy learning at the collective level despite few learning at the individual level. Hence, consistent with theory, collective and individual learning are connected but different processes: collective learning is more than the simple sum of individual learning processes.

Overall, this study adds evidence to policy process theories’ contention that the effects of crises, as drivers of policy change, strongly depend on policymakers’ reactions to those crises as well as the effect of collective structures on learning processes.

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