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Policy-Tracing Up, Down, Sideways

In an excerpt from the Introduction of A Policy Travelogue: Tracing Welfare Reform in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada, published in September, Catherine Kingfisher explains just how she came to be interested in the subject of welfare policy, and its existence as a living, working idea.



My interest in tracing policy began in the summer of 2000, when I was writing grant applications to work with welfare mothers in southern Alberta, where I had recently moved from Aotearoa/New Zealand. I discovered that in the early 1990s the Alberta provincial government of premier Ralph Klein, in the process of reforming its governing structures and welfare systems, had been heavily influenced by Roger Douglas, the former Finance Minister of New Zealand.


Douglas had been a key architect of the New Zealand Model (hereafter referred to as the NZ Model), a dramatic project of neoliberal welfare state restructuring emphasizing privatization, marketization, and personal responsibility that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Although awarded little scrutiny in the social science literature relative to the development and export of U.S. and British models of restructuring, the NZ Model, given its emphasis on a simultaneously comprehensive and speedy dismantling of the welfare state, nevertheless drew the interest of proponents of structural adjustment at the IMF and World Bank, as well as of conservatives in several western welfare states (Baker and Tippin 1999; Kelsey 1995, 1999)—including some in Canada, whose federal government had put in motion a rescaling of the welfare state beginning in the early 1990s that laid the groundwork for provincial experimentation in the organization and provision of social services. Policy élites in Alberta became particularly interested in the NZ Model as they looked externally for legitimization as well as guidance on how to approach reform. This connection became the starting point for an ethnographic exploration that took me to a range of sites in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Alberta between 2001 and 2006.


The New Zealand – Alberta story provides a particular set of theoretical and ethnographic opportunities. First, it foregrounds forms of policy travel that fall outside of the two frames that have tended to dominate scholarly analyses of policy movements across jurisdictions. In contrast to diffusionist models, which posit policy knowledge as radiating out from centers to margins—from the U.S. or Britain, for example, to Aotearoa/New Zealand or Australia; or from so-called developed to developing countries (for critiques, see Czarniawska and Sevón 2005; Freeman 2006; Newman 2006; Schön 1973)—the New Zealand – Alberta connection indicates that policy can also travel along the margins. If, as I argue throughout this book, policy-making is a process of assemblage, then policy travels across jurisdictions will be similarly less linear and more multidirectional, polyvocal, messy, and “irrational” than diffusionist models would suggest. This connection within the periphery provides a different perspective on globalization, decentering the U.S. and other big policy players in our analytical imaginations, thereby allowing for a more nuanced understanding of the many players in the global emergence and circulation of neoliberal forms of governance.


The New Zealand – Alberta case also buttresses challenges to methodological nationalism (e.g., Jenkins 2007; Lendvai and Stubbs 2006; Newman 2006; Stone 2002, 2004), which envisions policy production and movement as the exclusive purview of national states. This is a problem that has plagued globalization studies in general (Sassen 2007), as well as studies of policy transfer in particular, given that, in a number of cases, neoliberal restructuring has served to devolve policy-making to smaller bodies, such as, in Canada, provinces. There is, in addition, growing recognition of the importance of think tanks and independent policy experts in policy formation and travel (Dolowitz and March 1996, 2000; Lendvai and Stubbs 2006; Stone 2000, 2002, 2004). The New Zealand – Alberta connection provides an instructive example in this regard: not only did policy cross national and provincial boundaries, but, given that the key agent of transfer, Roger Douglas, was no longer a New Zealand official but a private consultant at the time, policy traversed, and rendered fuzzy, the distinction between the official and the unofficial.


Further, since policy travels unfold through time, the New Zealand – Alberta story provides an opportunity to trace the temporal dimensions of policy. Less than a decade after the NZ Model found a home away from home in Alberta, the Labor-Coalition government of Helen Clark, elected in 1999, took a different route, disassembling key features of the Model. Since the election of John Key in 2008, however, the more progressive era of Helen Clark has given way to a resurrection of a form of the NZ Model, marked by both the redeployment of blame-the-victim discourses and the tabling of policy proposals that would tighten access to state support. In Alberta, in the meantime, although Ralph Klein is now long out of office, the welfare reforms his administration instituted remain firmly in place, buttressed by discourses of economic crisis and austerity even in an oil- and gas-rich province. These permutations and iterations provide an opportunity to trace how particular policy frames work themselves out in specific communities of practice over time. Given these ongoing unfoldings, moreover, the New Zealand – Alberta case also speaks to contemporary policy contexts, marked by progressively accelerated fast policy transfer in situations increasingly characterized by a frenetic sense of urgency, and in which official policy responses of the sort I describe here are framed in terms of inevitability, as the only options possible. The New Zealand – Alberta story thus sheds light on historical patterns that continue to unfold in current policy realities.


Finally, and most generally, despite long-standing theorizations of globalization as the travel of ideas across geographic and cultural space, there are few detailed analyses of these processes with regard to policy. Studies of the movement of policy frames from one jurisdiction to another—what in mainstream policy sciences is referred to as transfer—come the closest to this, but, as I argue later in this chapter, the rubric of transfer is inadequate to the task. Nor do studies of transfer explore what happens to policy as it moves through various sites of policy delivery and reception; rather, they tend to confine themselves to spaces of official policy-making. Analyses of global pressures on national policy-making (Esping-Andersen 1996; Mishra 1999; Taylor-Gooby 2001) and cross-national comparisons of particular policy arenas (e.g., Cochrane, Clarke, and Gerwitz 2001; Daly and Rake 2003; O’Connor, Orloff and Shaver 1996; Sainsbury 1996, 2000) similarly tend to restrict themselves to state-level analyses.  In neglecting to follow policy beyond sites of official policy-making through to sites of implementation and reception, these approaches, however fruitful, reveal only part of the terrain of policy travels. In this light, the New Zealand – Alberta connection provides an opportunity to empirically trace the simultaneous movement of policy up, down, and sideways.




Catherine Kingfisher is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Lethbridge. She is editor of Western Welfare in Decline: Globalization and Women’s Poverty (2002) and author of Women in the American Welfare Trap (1996). Her research focuses on policy, governance, personhood, gender, and, most recently, happiness and well-being.

Read the author’s former post here.