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The challenge of thinking comparatively in cross-national public policy analysis

Book Mooches in North America
photo credit: Digital Sextant

Teaching public policy has always been a delight for me. Exploring the challenges of creating and implementing policies that are effective, efficient and equitable along with my students has been one of the highlights of my academic career. Previously, I taught POLI 350A Public Policy, with a focus on Canadian public policy (urban, social, health and environmental). This year, I am teaching POLI 352A The Comparative Politics of Public Policy. I was thrilled to be offered to teach comparative public policy, given that my research is focussed primarily in understanding cross-national environmental policy puzzles.

I have spent the better part of the past decade exploring the cross-regional dynamics of industrial restructuring in Mexican cities. My research has examined patterns of water governance across 5 different states in a Mexican watershed. Current projects include an investigation of how environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) in Canada, the United States and Mexico, use the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC)’s Citizen Submission on Enforcement Matters Mechanism (CSEM) to pressure national governments to remedy failures to comply with their domestic environmental regulations.

Paso de guadalupe

Throughout this semester, I’ve found teaching this course particularly challenging. Given that the course has no prerequisites, students can take this class without any previous coursework in public policy. While not unsurmountable, the challenge I faced was to ingrain the comparative method in my students’ thinking process. Thinking about how other nations design and implement policy and various factors influencing policy process and outcomes becomes challenging.

When one is required to detach oneself from his/her own national and cultural biases, and undertake a cross-national, or cross-regional policy comparison, recognizing those biases and going beyond our accumulated knowledge about a particular country’s policy style becomes part and parcel of the challenges in undertaking the analysis. I noticed this particular challenge in an article I recently assigned to my undergraduate students by Jacob Hacker:

Hacker, Jacob (2004) “Dismantling the Health Care State? Political Institutions, Public Policies and the Comparative Politics of Health Reform” British Journal of Political Science (2004), 34:4:693-724

In this article, Hacker undertakes a challenging cross-national comparison of public health reform in affluent democracies (Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States), focusing primarily on the politics of reform, and attempting to explain cross-national variations in legislative and policy outcomes. Hacker’s article offered my students a really good example of comparative analysis of health policy across five different nations.

When I asked my students to think critically about Hacker’s analysis, I requested that they indicate any shortcomings that they may have perceived in Hacker’s methodological approach, his theoretical framework and his case selection. For me, the main goal of this exercise was to test to what extent I had been successful in inculcating my students with an evidence-based, theoretically-grounded, comparative policy analytical framework.

I find comparative public policy analysis incredibly exciting, rewarding and challenging at the same time. Exploring causes of cross-national policy outcomes’ variations and offering empirically-grounded explanations for these is a highly exciting process. Throughout the semester, I did a lot of in-class analysis and application of various analytical frameworks, including the Bardach 8 step model.

Moreover, in teaching this course (The Comparative Politics of Public Policy), I have perceived that my students’ main challenge has been to think comparatively from the start. I wonder why this is the case, and I prepared this blog entry with two goals in mind: First, to ask my colleagues who have experience teaching comparative public policy, what their experience has been and what the main challenges have been in teaching this course. Second, to ask my own students to provide in here (on this blog) a written response to the main challenges they have faced throughout the course, and to test whether my perception is accurate.

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14 Responses

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  1. Pamela says

    In taking this class, some of the main challenges for me were to take my own biases aside and attempt to understand the different cultural aspects without having experienced the cultures themselves and seeing the methodology be applied. Although I find the readings interesting, I would have liked to have read more articles using the methology that we were being taught. For me, I’m more of a visual learner, whether that means diagrams or actual examples of the methods. However, these examples are limited and the ones that are available might not be the best to follow or fully represent what comparative politics actually means. In some cases, there might have been some articles where the methods were not clearly drawn out and it appeared to be more of just an article on various nations not so much comparative.

    Needless to say, the best part about this class is that it has further enhaced my thinking process, specifically, in looking at the bigger picture. With most political science courses, there is a constant reminder that as political scientists (as we have been taught through theory) that we should look pass ourselves and the environment we live in, in order to be solve dilemas of human life, environment issues, or political instability. With this particular class, it has provide me the tools to transform that way of thinking beyond the philosophical scope to a comparative aspect and can actually find a concrete solution, whether it be through policy-transfers, lessons-learnt, or simply looking at the cultural and historical backgrounds of these different nations.

  2. Jay Kiew says

    In the past three months, the main challenge I have faced was to accept some of the generalizations of the different comparative theoretical frameworks we have studied. How are we to define the process? I see that the actual methodologies in which policies are made as vast and so interconnected that it quickly becomes evident that it is difficult to say which one, if any, are right. All of the theories we have undertaken hold their weight in functionality, yet the policy-making process will never be reduced to one single theory that works all the time, in one specific way.

    Also, facts are always facts, but how one uses them is a completely different story. My challenges with the case studies were how the facts were presented. I found it fairly difficult to present a story objectively when some of the policies discussed hit close to home, in fear of simultaneously criticizing one side more than the other. As this was my first course in comparative public policy, I found it to be a side of politics I had never looked into previously in so much depth, and thoroughly enjoyed the very essence of politics broken down into methodologies. As different models of public policy-making emulated the Scientific Method in a step-by-step approach, it became difficult to say which steps were in the right/wrong position, or whether they were arbitrarily there.

  3. Yari says

    One of my main challenge is this class is to be able to think comparatively and taking my own biases aside. As a geographer, i am trained to understand/learn about one region/city at time, and to think that each region is unique and different, making it difficult to compare. However this particular class has provided me with the skills and tools that enable me to think cross-nationally and i find Bardach’s book on guide to policy analysis very helpful.

  4. Mursal says

    I find this class to be thoroughly interesting and challenging at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect walking into this class, but I want to expand my knowledge of all aspects of political science, which is why I continued on.

    The biggest challenge for me is the reading. I find that some of articles are vague and don’t provide me with a clear understanding of the topic. Some articles I have had to read more than once and do further research on just to find a more simple and clear explanation. I find the lectures be a great supplement to the readings and I am glad that they exist. I am an auditory learner. I love to listen to discussions and debates because they provide me with different opinions and perspectives that I would have never thought of on my own.

    Having no previous knowledge of comparative public policy has also hindered my ability to grasp the more complicated and detailed theories. After 3 months, I’m still not 100% clear on how to think comparatively, but I really love this class. I feel that this is the only class I’m taking this term that chanllenges me and forces me to think outside of the box.

  5. Nicole says

    The main challenge that I encountered in taking this class is reconcile what I have learned in Canadian public policy courses last year and the comparative public policy approach that we are focusing on in this course. While I expected that comparative public policy would involve comparing several national policies, for example comparing health care policy in Canada to health care policy in the United States, I was not primed for the analysis of policy that is really international in itself, such as Giuseppe Sciortino’s analysis of Italian welfare policy compared to Mediterranean states in general.

    Learning about policy that is international in itself has underscored the policy problem of generalization that was not as critical in national policy-making, and emphasized the applicable trade-offs of comparative policy analysis such as policy transfer.

    One thing that I do miss in this class that I enjoyed in the Canadian public policy courses I took was the practical application of the policy theories we were learning about to current events in the news each class. Tying the ideas of comparative public policy that we’ve addressed, which are sometimes difficult to conceptualize, to current events would make it easier to understand the theories, examples of the theories in action, and think of ideas for writing our own comparative policy analysis at the culmination of the course. This might also help to lend more structure to a course being taught in the seminar style.

  6. Christina says

    I came into this class with no expectations as I had never taken a policy course. I have been pleasantly surprised to learn a new way of analyzing politics and their implications. Discussing case studies had been really beneficial to me so I understand Nicole’s previous comment concerning current event examples

    The challenges I have encountered with this class revolve around the vast amount of information and my struggle with quantitative and qualitative factors.
    I find that there are so many frameworks with which to analyze policy that I do not have a clear and comprehensive concept of all of them in my head. Furthermore, there are advantages and disadvantages to each framework meaning some are more applicable to different situations. Consequently I find it difficult to choose the “right” framework to work with

    In terms of qualitative and quantitative factors I believe that you cannot truly understand quantitative factors unless you understand the qualitative factors that encompass that society. Since I have not spent a large amount of time in other countries I find it hard to analyze them because I cannot truly grasp the nuances of their society and the qualitative entities. I think this issue underscores the danger of generalizing the impact of policies based wholly on data-there are so many factors that contribute to policy change and impact.

  7. Rapichan says

    Thinking comparatively has been my one main challenge in this class and it is made more difficult by my limited knowledge of Western politics and political structure. Especially when topics on welfare state or universal health care are discussed, I have a hard time contributing my ideas and finding key variables in a single setting, let alone across different jurisdictions. I understand that the focus of the class is on North America and other industrialized nations and I was up for the challenge. However, I still need some time to adjust my biases and familiarize with the political processes and shared ideologies of developed countries.

    Other skills I hope to practice more include how to locate relevant and reliable data for each interested policy area and how to deal with missing data when attempting to provide a cross-analysis of different jurisdictions. We have touched on this topic earlier in the course but I hope we had spent more time on it before delving into various methodologies and approaches to comparative analysis.

  8. Kyle says

    Being a dual citizen and having spent a good deal of time in both the United States and Canada I have greatly enjoyed studying how policies end up different from two culturally similar places. Studying the complex process of how policy is created has been the main challenge. It is very hard to single out a single variable or even a set of variables that are responsible. For instance we have recently looked at health care in both the US and Canada yet it is very hard to determine why Canada has had universal coverage for so long while the US is beginning to look at it. Is it a matter of cultural norms? Population size? Different political institutions that allow Canada to make more executive decisions? For me identifying how all the different elements fit together and then figuring out how to present the information that i found has been an interesting challenge.

  9. Connor says

    I have found this course to be fairly hard, but extremely rewarding. For me, the concept of truly doing comparative analysis has proved to be the most difficult thing to wrap my head around. However, now that I have some of the tools necessary, as well as some guidance, I have found comparative analysis of public policies to be one of the most useful things I’ve learnt in my academic career. I found that comparative analysis of public policy is so much more than just quantitative stats based analysis and takes a much broader approach, incorporating several different qualitative aspects which requires a diverse and intimate knowledge of several areas. For me, the greatest challenge has been trying to incorporate the qualitative data that is necessary to perform proper comparative analysis. In other words, it has been hardest for me to live in other cultures, because that is what is truly needed to have a qualitative understanding of why certain policies work in some regions and not in others.

  10. Scott says

    “Every alternative in policy development faces tradeoffs, and doing nothing is only another alternative.” Too true. I think that for me this has been one of the hardest challenges of approaching both comparative politics and public policy, especially when accounting for the fatalism of absolutes. For now I will talk of two aspects: the toolkit of the course and the field of study.
    First, the tools. This is my first time being exposed to the formalized methodologies of comparative politics. Wow, there are alot of methods, and not only is there a large amount of overlap within comparative methods, but it also creeps into case studies and large N statistical analysis. But so is the nature of life. When we look at the methods of one policy regime in a small N comparative analysis we focus on coming to know the methods, instruments, evaluative criteria (quantitative and qualitative variables) actors, institutions, ideas, outcomes, tradeoffs and feedbacks within the regime as it exists in our regions of study. However, the plot always seems to thicken as nearly all the aspects of a comparative analysis are inherently intertwined with outlying variables of everything from other policy regimes to diverging ‘rational’ interests in regards to acceptable tradeoffs.
    Second, the regimes of public policy. Once again, Wow is there ever alot to take in. Empathy is one of the hardest things that i have had to come to terms with in regards to this. Yeah, I know, there are so many regimes that learning them can seem overwhelming, especially when you start to get deeper into all of the interests and actors… so much information, what is important and what don’t i have time to care for. But that is what it is all about isn’t it. Caring. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t bother. But how hard and tiring empathy can be sometimes, especially in the case of public policy. It is an ultra broad field, and as there are no absolutes there is always a hardship that our policies of study are trying to manage, some better than others. So yeah, empathy, I find it difficult to contextualize sometimes, especially when doing comparative analysis because, being raised a Western Canadian, this is my first exposure to alot of the information regarding the pressing need for sustainable policy in areas of the world where people live or die based on how we decide… Not to mention the coldness of analysis, one thing that I really like in comparative analysis is that there is actually room for the qualitative variables. They let me know and sometimes provide an all to real reminder of why I have decided to not decide differently.

  11. Victoria says

    I am a Mexican exchange student at the UBC. In Mexico, I have seen that many of the policies implemented by the government have faced several problems and have not worked very well. Sometimes, these public policies fail in their goals because they are based on a wrong analysis of the situation and needs to which they are aim at or because they have been models of policies that, after being successful in other countries, are implemented in Mexico without the appropriate analysis of the circumstances that characterize this country. For this reason, I came into this class with the expectation of learning how to compare the public policies of different countries; what theories, models and data are relevant for this kind of political analysis, and what could be the elements which determine the success of some policies in certain countries.
    This course has been very useful for me because it has given to me the necessary tools (not only theoretical, but also practical) for making a cross-national or cross-regional comparative analysis. However, it has also challenged me in many different aspects. First, it has been very hard to avoid thinking, even when I am doing comparisons among different countries, in the terms of what I know about or I have experienced in my own country. Sometimes, it has been difficult to me to understand the functioning of other political systems, processes of policy making or behavior of institutions and social actors because I am biased or continue thinking, in the same way I usually analyze my country. But I think that to be able to recognize my own biases has helped me to avoid them in latter analysis.
    I can say that, after taking this course, I have not only learned how to analyze the public policies of other countries, but I have also learned how to approach or study the policies of mine.

  12. Craig Burton says

    My biggest challenge relating to the concepts introduced in comparative public policy was my inability to see issues first at a policy creation level and second as a series of variables that I would be able to use to compare them fairly.

    Having never taken a course like this before I had only ever investigated the results of policy or the effect of Canadian policy on Canadians. Although I knew that policy was transferred between international or interstate/provincial governments I had never thought of the different paths that each policy could take through its inception, creation, application and review.

    Imagining the vast number of variables inherent in this type of comparison has felt overwhelming, especially when trying to apply those variables to the different methodologies and frameworks introduced by the authors of the articles covered in the course material.

    When writing my term paper I’ve found that I can now see some possible flaws to the data that was used in the creation and transmission and widespread adoption of policy that may or may not actually be effective in its given task, but has still spread to jurisdictions around the world as a solution to a problem despite evidence in its favor. To this point I have only ever thought of that particular policy in terms of how it affected me as a Canadian and not about how it (the policy) has proliferated across the globe largely as a result of its application and subsequent studies of it in Canada.

  13. Craig Burton says

    despite evidence in its favor

    should be:
    despite evidence not in its favor.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Public Intellectuals 2.0: Raul Pacheco-Vega on Social Media in the Academy | MCSPI linked to this post on January 27, 2013

    [...] And an example of how we discuss issues is here: “The challenge of thinking comparatively in cross-national public policy analysis.” [...]



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