These Strategies Can Help Policymakers Break Through Partisan Gridlock

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Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” She argued that Romeo’s surname, Montague – that of her family’s rival house – was a mere title with no real bearing on his “dear perfection” to her.

New research shows that public policy may benefit from the same untethering. A recent study by the University of Virginia’s Craig Volden suggests that lawmakers are more receptive to new policy proposals when they’ve been scrubbed of references to the rival “house,” or political party.

Volden, a professor of public policy and politics and associate dean for academic affairs at UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, says that ideologically similar states and localities often adopt similar policies, but he and his colleagues began to question whether that was due solely to like-minded preferences.

Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics and associate dean for academic affairs at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Craig Volden is a professor of public policy and politics and associate dean for academic affairs at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“I wanted to know, ‘Is this really taking place because policymakers are ideologically predisposed to some policies? Or is it because they actually refuse to learn from other policymakers who are ideologically diverse?’” he said.

Volden and his fellow researchers devised a way to study if local officials, even before reading about the structure and effectiveness of a policy, were inclined to dismiss it, if that policy was associated with members of the opposite party.

Together with colleagues from Washington University in St. Louis, Brigham Young University and Georgetown University, he created survey questions to gauge policy bias in municipal governments. They recently published an article on their findings, “Ideology, Learning and Policy Diffusion: Experimental Evidence,” in the American Journal of Political Science.

“The way we were describing it was, ‘This is a policy that was adopted in another city. Would you like to learn about it?’” Volden said.

To some respondents, the policy was described primarily as a success or a failure. But to others, it was described as a proposal from a specific party. Researchers plugged these scenarios into the American Municipal Officials Survey and found that while ideological differences negatively impact willingness to learn about outside policies, the biases that might turn officials away from new policy ideas can be overcome.

The survey results suggested that placing the emphasis on the success of a policy, or on the fact that it was a co-partisan policy experiment, and de-emphasizing any link to the opposing political party significantly increases policymakers’ willingness to learn about it. In other words, officials are more likely to try a new idea if they know it only as a proven success, or if they know other members of their party have tried it.

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For this particular study, Volden and his colleagues focused only on the local level and tested policies that had to do with zoning and home foreclosures.

“This time the policies we discussed were government interventions, so they did have something of a liberal bend to them, but we would expect the same results for policies that traditionally align with conservative views,” Volden said. “There’s no evidence to suggest that bias affects conservatives more than liberals or vice versa.”

He explained that the ultimate goal of the study was not to expose bias in one side or the other, but to show strategies to overcome it so that policymakers might be more willing to experiment and learn from their peers about practices that have worked. This new data is especially important for “policy entrepreneurs” pushing for experimentation and improvements in government.

“Policy entrepreneurs can be any number of people or groups. One example is the National Association of County and City Health Officials,” Volden said. “They are trying to come up with a campaign to limit children’s use of sugar-sweetened beverages. They’re talking to a variety of cities and counties and saying, ‘Here are some policies you could try out.’ They don’t know what will work exactly, but they would like there to be broader experimentation and learning.”

To Volden, the essential result of using strategies to overcome bias is to spur more conversation. A greater willingness to discuss policy on its merits is good for both sides of the aisle, especially among local government officials who can have more leeway for trial and error.

“Since there’s so much partisanship, polarization and gridlock at the national level, a lot of policymaking and implementation falls to the local and state levels,” Volden said. “We did find that they were polarized somewhat also, but that those biases could be overcome through this learning process.”

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