The portability of crime policies

5 Aug 2022

By Tim Newburn

Where do crime policies come from? Emerging from years of careful research and evaluation? Conjured up by focus groups, or just on the back of a fag packet? Interestingly, despite the importance of the question, the study of policy formation, tracing the complex history of the emergence of political ideas and practices, has never been a terribly common academic activity. Studying outcomes has been far more frequent than studying origins.

That said there are some wonderful studies which have offered considerable insight and have furnished us with a range of useful concepts and metaphors for making sense of policy processes. Some have focused on the broad rationality of the process, seeing policy-making as a series of stages from original conception to eventual realisation. Others, by contrast, see policy-making as something that is inherently messy and unpredictable. The American political scientist, John Kingdon (1984), for example, famously suggested that rather than being solutions to problems, policy proposals were often ‘answers’ in search of a problem to which they might be attached.

In truth, the essential complexity of policy-making cannot be denied. Its origins generally lie in convoluted networks of actors rather than a single influential individual. It is rarely one decision but rather a mixture of a large number of choices, some big, some small. ‘Policies’ never stand still, but change over time, in part because they are one set of elements in a wider web of other policies which they affect and which, in turn, they are influenced by. For these and other reasons, policy-making is generally better thought of being akin, as Charles Lindblom (1959) put it, to a ‘science of mudding through.’

Public policy ideas regularly emerge from the networks of which policy-makers are a part and which, in an increasingly globalised world, are likely to be ever more extensive. Studies of what is often referred to as ‘lesson-drawing’, ‘policy diffusion’ and ‘policy transfer’ have consequently become a small yet significant academic growth industry. In short, such work, as Dolowitz and Marsh (2002) put it, tends to be ‘concerned with a similar process in which knowledge about policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in one political setting (past or present) is used in the development of policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in another political setting.’

Such questions are of particular relevance to our ESRC-funded study of public health approaches to violence reduction in Scotland and England ( As Luke Billingham noted in an earlier blog, ‘Among those working to reduce violence in England and Wales, the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU) has been hailed as an inspiration and a guide.’ Various claims have been made about the importance of Scottish policy and practice to developments south of the border – our concern is to examine and understand the nature of any such influence, how it has operated and been made possible and what, if it is the case, has limited or mitigated it.

In fact, what is particularly interesting from existing research is just how difficult and infrequent what Trevor Jones and I (2021) have referred to as ‘hard’ policy transfer is. That is to say, examples of more-or-less faithful importation or copying of concrete policy content and instruments are difficult to find. Much easier to discover are examples of the movement of the ‘softer’ elements of policy such as ideas, symbols and political rhetoric.

But when it does occur what does the nature of ‘transfer’ involve? Here we may distinguish between a number of processes: ‘learning’ (something that looks a little like shopping), ‘mimicry or emulation’ (where there is greater concern with the symbolic than the technical elements of policy) or even something that looks more like ‘coercion or incentivization’ (the influence of powerful outside bodies on domestic policy-making).

What attracts policy-makers to ideas from elsewhere? Why might England be influenced by Scotland or London by Glasgow? Earlier research has identified at least three broad potential factors. There is the matter of cultural similarity and political attraction. Policy-makers tend to look to countries or places which are imagined to be similar in some ways, and to other policy-makers with whom they have some sympathy. Then there is the nature of the ‘policy’ itself, with research suggesting that it is often the ideological claims that can be made that underpins much ‘soft’ policy transfer whereas where substantive or ‘hard’ transfer occurs it is policies that are relatively uncomplicated and technical that have the greatest chance of success.

While the nature of political systems and institutions, and the socio-economic and cultural contexts in which policies develop and travel (to the extent they do) are important in any explanation of putative policy transfer, studies also regularly recognise the often crucial role played by influential individuals – what we might think of, following Howard Becker (1963), as ‘moral entrepreneurs’, or John Kingdon as ‘policy entrepreneurs’. To what extent are such characters identifiable in the study of the emergence of the ‘public health’ approach to violence both north and south of the border and, if they are, what role did they play?

In reality, it seems likely that there is some ‘outside’ influence on most policy developments. In this case, for example, the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit acknowledges the influence of earlier public health principles developed by the World Health Organisation, just as Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence noted the importance of the Ceasefire project in Boston and Cincinnati’s Initiative to Reduce Violence. Though relatively infrequently studied to date, examining what forms outside influences take, and why they take shape in the way they do, offers another potentially significant means of understanding the aetiology of policy ideas and practices.


Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance, New York: Free Press

Dolowitz, D. and Marsh, D. (2002) Learning from abroad: The role of policy transfer in contemporary policy-making, Governance, 13, 1, 5-23

Jones, T. and Newburn, T. (2021) When crime policies travel: Cross-national policy transfer in crime control, Crime and Justice, vol. 50, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Kingdon, J. (1984) Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, New York: Pearson

Lindblom, C. E. (1959) The Science of Muddling-Through, Public Administration Review, 19: 79–88.