Health policy diffusion both horizontal and vertical

December 6, 2010

Across the nation, cities have been pioneers in restricting restaurant and workplace smoking, and making it harder for children to acquire cigarettes. As a political scientist, Professor Chuck Shipan’s work seeks to understand how these policies spread—both horizontally to other cities, and vertically to states—and to draw broader implications for those interested in policy diffusion.

Chuck Shipan

In collaboration with Craig Volden of The Ohio State University, Shipan has conducted a number of studies on this important health policy topic. In one, he investigates whether local antismoking policies increase the likelihood of state action through a snowball effect, or decrease it through a pressure valve effect. His conclusion? In states with legislative professionalism and strong health advocacy networks, these policies do bubble up. In another study, Shipan looks at mechanisms of diffusion in the largest U.S. cities over a 25-year period. His findings: that these policies diffuse as cities learn from the experiments of early policy adopters, seek to remain competitive with other large cities in their region, emulate larger cities, and adopt policies the state favors. Where cities imitated their larger peers rather than learning from early adopters, Shipan finds that antismoking policies tend to be short-lived. But, in general, Shipan’s research demonstrates that larger cities are better able to learn from others, less fearful of economic repercussions, and less likely to rely on imitation.

Shipan has also explored a little-studied subset of policy diffusion: top-down diffusion from the federal government to the states. While Congress and the President are known to shape policies through legal directives and financial incentives (such as federal grants for states developing policies in a particular legislative area), Shipan seeks to understand if they can also impact state-level policies simply by sharing information. Specifically, Shipan looks at Congressional legislative hearings—the public hearings Congress holds to collect and analyze information about a specific policy topic as they consider future legislation—as well as bills submitted to Congress that do not become law. Shipan’s finding will interest federal policymakers who seek to encourage policy solutions: even federal hearings and bills that fail can inspire state-level policymakers.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2010 State & Hill here.