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Crisis and Learning: A Conceptual Balance Sheet
Can governments learn? The title of an influential monograph by a leading political psychologist (Etheredge, 1985) posed this seemingly simplistic question. At first glance, the obvious answer to such a blunt question would appear to be ‘of course’. Governments (and government agencies) persist in spite of, or in some cases because of, dynamic and often hostile political environments. This would seem to indicate that a significant degree of learning is taking place. Yet many scholars, including Etheredge 1985 himself, are markedly skeptical about the learning capacity of policy‐makers and governmental organizations and argue that governments learn poorly or slowly at best (Sabatier, 1987; Lebovic, 1995: 835). How can this be? Is this apparent paradox an artefact of the ways in which scholars define and operationalize the concept of learning?
Part one of the article will present a brief and selective survey of the diverse inter‐disciplinary literature on policy and political learning. This preliminary conceptual analysis identifies several difficult issues. Among the most serious is the ontological question (who or what learns?) and the problem of distinguishing learning from other types of political change, which raises thorny normative and methodological questions.
The second part of the article brings the concept of crisis into the learning equation. It has been hypothesized by a number of scholars (George, 1980; Goldmann, 1988; Young, 1989; Olsen, 1992) that conditions associated with policy crises, and their aftermath, may facilitate learning and change and contribute to overcoming the governmental inertia and political dynamics which often inhibit learning under ‘normal’ conditions. For example, it is argued that the experience of crises may contribute to a posture of cognitive openness conducive to individual and collective learning. Crisis experiences tend to re‐order the political agenda, stimulate an appetite for change and reform on the part of the electorate and the mass media and, thus, create moments of political possibility, ‘policy windows’ (Kingdon, 1984), which create opportunities for agile reformers before they close. A ‘balance‐sheet’ approach is used in order to examine the plausibility of the crisis‐learning hypothesis. This entails posing twin questions. First, what are the characteristics of crisis situations (or political systems which have experienced crises) likely to promote governmental learning? Secondly, what are the characteristics of crisis situations (or political systems which have experienced crises) likely to create obstacles to learning?
Some preliminary thoughts on how to go about conducting empirical research in this area, and some reflections upon the results of the conceptual analysis, are presented in the last two sections of the article.