Policy learning has been an enduring lens on the policy process for more than four decades. Despite policy learning having been launched by Heclo’s (1974) groundbreaking comparative study of social policy in Britain and Sweden and further reinforced by Hall’s (1993) within case analysis of economic policy change in Britain 1970-1989, it is not clear what insights for comparative research have been generated by the vast learning literature. This paper begins with a review of the empirical policy learning field examining its comparative content. While the results demonstrate a mix of comparative strategies at work, no coherent research agenda has emerged. This is explained, in part, by the absence of a unifying analytical framework; learning is a classic theme in several theories of the policy process. As a result, piecemeal conceptualisations have flourished at the expense of a cumulative and comparative research agenda. Recent theoretical developments offer a way forward however. Two sets of authors in particular have pushed the agenda – Heikkila and Gerlak on collective learning (2013) and Dunlop and Radaelli’s modes of learning (2013). Here, we focus on modes of learning. We start by outlining the framework and how it addresses four challenges of comparative research: the need for definitional clarity; the creation of a shared conceptualisation that works as a mid-range; a coherent model of causation; and, a contribution to policy design. We then discuss the learning framework’s comparative credentials in relation to three conceptual challenges: defining public policy and change; dealing with political context and learning actors; understanding time and space. We conclude sketching a comparative research agenda for the future.
Prof. Claire Dunlop