Shipan explores how policies spread across the United States in new book

September 7, 2021

In his new book, Why Bad Policies Spread (And Good Ones Don’t), Charles R. Shipan, the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Michigan, and co-author Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia, explore exactly that — how policies, both good and bad, are replicated or modified from state to state.

Using examples from state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as mask mandates and stay-at-home orders, the authors argue that states must look to and learn from each other’s experiences to discern and spread good policy.

They write, “A helpful factor for good policies to spread, we maintain, is that states are able to learn from initial policy experiments elsewhere. When learning is the mechanism by which policies diffuse, there is a greater likelihood that good policies will spread and bad ones will die on the vine. For this to happen, political leaders in a state need to learn, for example, whether policy options will be politically viable and acceptable to citizens in their states. They need to discern whether these existing policies have been successful in terms of their policy consequences. And they need to determine how best to adapt policies found elsewhere for their own needs.”

Shipan and Volden lay out three ingredients for this to happen: observable experiments, time to learn, and favorable incentives and expertise among policymakers. The authors acknowledge that sometimes the framework doesn’t work out expectedly, especially when policymakers have underlying political biases or when institutions don’t have the means for cultivating expertise. In these cases, state governments fall back on competition, imitation and coercion, resulting in the spread of bad policies. 

Looking back on their research and analysis, Shipan and Volden provide valuable lessons for policymakers at state and federal levels can use to ensure the creation and spread of good policies. 

Why Bad Policies Spread (And Good Ones Don’t) is published by Cambridge University Press. It can be viewed in its entirety here, free for the first two weeks of September. After that, it can be purchased through Cambridge University Press or at all leading booksellers, like Barnes and Noble and Amazon.