Policy Diffusion

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Policy diffusion can be defined as an interactive process of taking ideas of policy initiatives and circulating them to the relevant players in the policy process. Policy diffusion can be separated into two key concepts: general innovations and the diffusion of specific innovations. The traits of innovations were addressed in Everett M. Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations by segmenting them into five separate perceived attributes of innovations (Rogers 1995).


These categories include relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. Relative advantage is defined as whether the innovation (and to what degree) is seen as being better than the idea it would replace. Rogers sees the degree of relative advantage as being measured not only in economic terms, but also in the areas of social terms—“prestige, convenience and satisfaction.” The idea of the strength of the idea is under Roger’s definition secondary to the perception that the innovation is strong to the individuals who are receiving it.

Compatibility is the acceptability of the innovation based on the existing environment. Is the innovation compatible with the norms and values of the social system that it is designed to serve? Complexity is the ability of the innovation to be explained to the audience its being proposed to.

Triability is the testing capacity of the policy innovation—whether trial runs of the innovation are practical and to what degree the innovation can be segmented into installments instead of attempting the policy innovation all at once. Observability is based on the consideration that innovations are more easily acceptable by individuals when they are more familiar. As Rogers observes, individuals are more likely to adopt innovations when the results are easily seen (1995).


Considering the categories presented and looking at the diffusion process itself, the next area of focus is communication. How an innovation is communicated to both policy makers and the individuals it is meant to serve is vital to its adoption or dismissal. Different channels of communication can be opened through mass media and interpersonally to generate knowledge and interest in a policy innovation. In addition to these two important sources, intergovernmental sources and lobbying activities from professional associations of state and local officials provide an important source of communication for policy diffusion (McGuire 2004).


When differentiating between general innovations and the diffusion of special innovations, some studies have emphasized general innovativeness, in the conceptualization of being rather quick to adopt new practices or policies of a wide variety. This notion of general innovation works with the idea that some governments are seen as “early adopters”—ready to try something new and often the first to “jump in” (Rogers 1995).

As the innovation moves from the general to the more specific, it can also move from different levels of analysis. An example of this would be the extension of voting rights to women. The governmental innovation—general in nature—to extend the voting franchise leads to a diffusion of more specific innovations, the decision by women to be individual innovators and engage in a new activity at the time suffrage is expanded.

As innovation is considered, influences play a critical role in the decision-making process. Three influences come to the forefront in innovation: task environment, slack resources, and political values.

Task Environment

The task environment has been cited by researchers as a prime factor in the implementation of innovation in certain cases. The problem itself is considered by many researchers to be a major source of innovations themselves. Dramatic crises or a failure in policy is one emphasis area to consider when looking at factors driving innovation. A terrorist act such as September 11 can provide the drive needed for the development of tighter security procedures to be implemented at airports, ports, and other “targets of opportunity” for terrorists.

While all problems faced by a governmental entity cannot be considered “crises,” even these can provide the stimulus for significant changes in policy. The expectations of the citizenry and the actual administration of the governmental entity might encourage elected officials to seek innovative solutions to bring these two factors more in line (Nice 1994).

When conditions worsen and the current policy remains at a static level, those policies might lose their perceived effectiveness amongst the citizenry. While this perception might rule the actions of decision makers, the actual effectiveness of the policy might not follow the perceptual line. An isolated, singular incident might bring on perceptual panic that drives policy innovations well beyond the scope of the actual incident itself. On the opposite side, a serious policy problem might go relatively unnoticed while worsening without any public perception of a crisis.

Problems are potential vehicles for policy makers to look for improved ways of doing things within their areas of control. When the citizenry is happy with the output of a policy approach, incentive to create change within the policy approach may not be present. Other “fires” may need to be put out, and the proactive approach to innovation within policy areas might be a “back-burner” priority for policy makers. Perception of problems might, in some cases, bring innovations from somewhere other than the original jurisdiction. Policy changes such as these might not come from a voluntary perspective, but from another source. One example of this would be the increase in the drinking age to 21 years of age. While not mandated by the federal government, incentives were offered to states in the form of federal highway funding that encouraged a policy change to be made by the states. These less than voluntary policy changes can go beyond the offering of financial incentives for compliance and can extend to military occupation, as illustrated during Reconstruction in the American South during the post–Civil War period.

The task environment mode would suggest that innovations are likely to be found after the development of a problem. When a problem area is severe and dramatic, the incentive to develop an innovative solution is arguable heightened by the policy makers responsible. When a policy is perceived by the citizenry to be operating effectively (or when a problem is so stealthy that notice is not taken by the citizenry or policy makers), the incentive for innovation is lessened.

Slack Resources

Policy innovations can be examined from a viewpoint of available resources, including economic ones, in order to support programs such as food stamps and welfare benefits to the poor. When using a perspective of “slack resources,” the availability of resources is a significant driver for innovations in policy. If no additional resources are available, innovation calling for resources is not likely to happen (Rogers 1995).

An innovation brings with it, at times, a level of uncertainty that can heighten risk for the policy maker in initiating new programs that might fail during a time of lean revenues and other resources. At the same time, innovation might be encouraged to keep away from “the embarrassment of unused resources” (Thompson 1969).

Governmental entities, once allocated funds, have a powerful incentive to spend all of the funds to avoid charges of not needing the monies or personnel asked for. Larger agencies with such perceived budgetary surpluses or unneeded personnel would be open to claims that it has more resources than it could possibly use and should be cut back during the next budgetary cycle. Taking those resources that are in a more idle state and applying them to analyzing new solutions to policy problems would be a method of increasing the likelihood of innovation.

Political Values

While task environment and resources might reflect the problem environment, the ability or drive to use governmental power may influence innovation. Whether or not the innovative change is within the public’s perception of the governmental agency’s scope of power will affect how a policy maker proposes new and innovative policy changes. Should the governmental agency’s powers be seen in a broad scope, the number of issues that fall within the scope will increase and innovations in those areas will not be likely to stay in the background.

The synergy between the proposed change and the opinion surrounding the change might play a role in whether the innovation happens. And while public opinion might be ripe for a change, there is no guarantee that the innovation that is being embraced by the responsible policy makers is the one sought by the public. This compatibility between the innovation and public opinion environment is one that should not be ignored when examining the feasibility of innovation proposals.


Jack McGuire, “Governments as Interest Groups: State and Local Government Officials’ Organizations in American Politics” (Ph.D. diss., 2004); David Nice, Policy Innovation in State Government (Ames: Iowa State Press, 1994); Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. (New York: Free Press, 1995); and Victor Thompson, Bureaucracy and Innovation (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1969).

Eric Grulke and David C. Nice

SEE ALSO: Intergovernmental Relations; State Government