There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, mused French novelist Victor Hugo. He might have added that some ideas come a longer way than others. Policymakers have recently opened up to the idea of policy transfer—borrowing successful innovations from abroad for use at home.
"Cross-national experience is having an increasingly powerful impact upon decision-makers," writes Diane Stone of the University of Warwick (UK) Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation. In "Learning Lessons, Policy Transfer and the International Diffusion of Policy Ideas," Stone defines policy transfer as "a dynamic whereby knowledge about policies, administrative arrangements or institutions is used across time or space in the development of policies, administrative arrangements and institutions elsewhere."
Translation: Policy transfer = finding good ideas and putting them to use.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has made headlines pushing bold ideas. Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-Independent, made his fortune as an innovator. His Bloomberg Terminal, a PC-like device that provides real-time market data, revolutionized finance in the early 1980s. Similarly, his term as New York City's mayor has been characterized by its reliance on innovative thinking. Often, however, the boldest of Bloomberg's political innovations are imports.
In 1999, Bloomberg told an interviewer for the consultancy Accenture, "In the last half a dozen years, innovation kept everything going. The next few years are going to be the period where we stop all the innovation, where we absorb what we have. We will make [innovation] more reliable and user-friendly. We will figure out which things we can afford and drop the things that we can't afford."
Although he was referencing the technology boom of the 1990s, the future mayor inadvertently described the political philosophy that has become the hallmark of his administration.
Bloomberg's quest to absorb reliable and user-friendly innovations is known formally in academic circles as policy transfer. Alternately termed "lesson-learning," policy transfers occur most frequently, and most visibly, in the area of public health. A 2004 law barring smoking in New York workplaces followed similar bans in Minnesota and California. Thirty-five U.S. states now have anti-smoking laws on the books. In recent years the Irish, Norwegian, and British governments have also enacted bans on smoking in public places.
The 2006 ban on the use of trans-fats in New York City restaurants was modeled on a similar law passed in 2004 in the city of Tiburon, California. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene subsequently hired the lawyer behind the Tiburon ban, Stephen Joseph, to sire its own anti trans-fat regime.
But Bloomberg's high-profile example of policy transfer is a congestion pricing initiative to reduce car traffic in midtown Manhattan. Singapore instituted a traffic congestion pricing scheme in 1975 and updated to a system of electronic toll collection in 1998. In Stockholm, Sweden, a congestion pricing plan reduced traffic by 25 percent in one month and increased mass transit ridership by 40,000.
"From an international perspective, it is important to not only have economic growth, but environmental growth. Many cities have serious environmental issues," Stockholm Mayor Annika Billström told Government Technology. "We are now doing this trial with a modern, exciting, new system which the rest of Europe and the world can learn from."
The city of London's congestion fee, in place since 2003, uses closed circuit television and automatic license plate recognition technology to collect an £8 fee for driving in the congestion zone. Bloomberg has repeatedly cited the success of the London program when promoting PLANYC 2030, his administration's long-term plan to grow and green New York City.
"Most people don't like [the congestion fee] but most people think it's working," Londoner Kevin Lee told Policy Innovations. "Overnight, central London became a civilized city—I suspect for the first time in its history. Certainly since the Romans came to visit."
So will congestion pricing civilize New York, a city renowned for its uncivilized driving habits? So far, local political horse-trading has stalled the program's forward progress, but the plan could yet go through. A seventeen-member commission of city and state appointees will soon review the mayor's plan.
Often civil society helps grease the wheels of policy transfer. In the case of congestion pricing in New York, local citizen groups partnered up to research how foreign models could be interpreted and implemented in Manhattan. One hub in the community is Transportation Alternatives, a New York-area group that supports safe bicycling, walking, and environmentally sensible transportation policy.
According to TA Communications Director Wiley Norvell, capturing the public imagination is key to demonstrating the validity of imported ideas. One stumbling block for congestion pricing has been that lovably stubborn sense of New York pride and exceptionalism.
"New Yorkers tend to view traffic like the weather—not something they can really change," says Norvell. "But streets are a contested public space. Breaking the gridlock in government is as much about breaking the gridlock in our heads."
Bogotá, Colombia, is another city trying to export smart policy. Former mayor Enrique Peñalosa has traveled to the United States to lecture on the transportation and infrastructure improvements his administration pioneered—and the subsequent spikes in his approval rating. Bogotá now boasts restricted driving hours and car-free days, a Bus Rapid Transit system, and closure of the city's main thoroughfare on Sunday mornings to give bicycles and pedestrians safe access.
Bloomberg is not the only one championing innovative ideas from abroad to reduce traffic and improve air quality in the five boroughs. David Haskell, executive director of the Forum for Urban Design, is the driving force behind the New York Bike-Share Project.
Haskell hopes to provide New Yorkers access to public bicycles for less than 50 cents a trip through a large-scale bike-sharing program. The first successful bike-sharing program, City Bike, appeared in 1985 in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is still going strong with over 2,000 bikes on the street. Eight European cities including Barcelona, Oslo, Frankfurt, and Stockholm have since started their own bike-sharing programs. The new Paris bike-sharing project is the biggest yet, with over 10,000 bicycles available at 750 docking stations for a daily fee of one euro.
University of Warwick scholar Stone sees a critical role for policy entrepreneurs like Bloomberg and Haskell. While not personally responsible for innovations, Bloomberg and Haskell have nonetheless spearheaded the diffusion of ideas and expertise. According to Stone, "[Policy entrepreneurs] help transfer the intellectual matter that underpins policies."
Bloomberg has done just that. In July, the billionaire mayor told a New York State Assembly hearing, "To produce better mass transit, clean our air, keep our economy strong and help reduce global warming, our pilot program on congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come."
And you know what Victor Hugo says about that.