Do governments and institutions learn? Are policy makers, activists, experts, and others capable of drawing lessons from their experiences and applying it to problems they face? A persuasive literature in public policy argues that institutions and people within them do learn, and that a learning model is a useful way to understand and explain policy change. This learning approach has been proposed to complement more traditional approaches to policy change that are based on political conflict, approaches that depict government and policy as driven largely by societal conflicts and pressures.
Approaches to policy change based on a learning model "generally hold that states can learn from their experiences and that they can modify their present actions on the basis of their interpretation of how previous actors have fared in the past" (Bennett and Howlett 1992, 276). A learning model suggests a more positive view of policy making than does the traditional, conflict-based model. The notion that governments and policy makers learn over time suggests a purpose to policy making. A learning approach stresses knowledge acquisition and use. Policy makers are seen less as passive forces driven by political and interest group pressures than as sources and implementers of ideas, information, and analysis that influence choices.
This article applies a learning model to U.S. environmental policy, with a focus on pollution control. Environmental policy making is knowledge intensive and complex, involving scientific, technical, legal, policy, and social issues. How people obtain, evaluate, and use knowledge is important. Many aspects of politics and policy--definitions of problems, analytical tools and methods, differences between lay and expert perceptions, perceived conflicts between economic and environmental goals--have changed over time. Nations at similar stages of development face similar issues and move through comparable phases in environmental problem solving (Janicke 1996; Janicke and Weidner 1997). Thus, environmental policy presents an opportunity to examine how policy makers have or may be able to learn from their experience.
The Foundations of a Learning Approach
What does it mean to view public policy making as a learning process? An early application of a learning approach was Hugh Heclo's Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden (1974). In that work, Heclo challenged the prevailing view among political scientists that changes in public policy were largely the product of societal conflict, arguing that an approach "focused on knowledge acquisition and utilization could yield better explanations and understanding about policies than existing conflict-based theories" (276). Although the resolution of conflicts among societal interests may explain periods of fundamental change, much of what occurs in between may be seen as efforts by policy makers to learn and to apply the lessons of that learning.
Heclo described policy learning as "a relatively enduring alteration in behavior that results from experience" (306). Policy makers learn in response to changes in the external policy environment: "As the environment changes, policy makers must adapt if their policies are not to fail" (277). Similarly, in a book on "lesson drawing," Richard Rose presents learning as a response to dissatisfaction, which in turn stimulates a search for solutions: "actions that will reduce the gap between what is expected from a program and what government is doing" (1993, 50). Dissatisfaction with the status quo may come from many sources: changes in problems, the emergence of new constituency groups, a catastrophic event, globalization of domestic issues, budget constraints, and so on. What matters is that there is enough of a sense of disruption that policy makers are led to search for ways to reduce dissatisfaction within the policy system.
Of course, the differences between conflict-based and learning-based models are not always clear cut. …