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The Black Box of governmental Learning: The Learning Spiral

Little is known about how governments learn best or what exactly makes them change their behavior in a targeted way. When governments perform poorly, the consequences are wasted resources; undelivered services; and denial of social, legal, and economic protection for citizens, especially the poor. Thus, it is important that governments learn from past practices to avoid mistakes and to adopt successful practices from others, and continuously acquire new knowledge to make them more efficient and relevant. Because the process of learning in governmental settings is considered hard to execute and conceptualize, it is referred to as a black box. The Black Box of Governmental Learning suggests several practical and methodological steps and introduces the model of the Learning Spiral to facilitate such learning.

The Learning Spiral aims to ensure that there is a transition from knowledge to action, that acquired knowledge is constantly updated, and that governmental learning processes are sustainable. The Learning Spiral has eight stages for designing, carrying-out and implementing follow-up activities for learning events. It takes into account the political environment where the event is taking place, requiring a deliberate selection of participants to ensure a successful learning process.

Key points

  • Identifying knowledge that is of interest for governments to learn and understanding the political and institutional environment are key factors in selecting learning actors. Learning actors need to be carefully selected to ensure that all relevant governmental and non-governmental stakeholders are represented at a learning event. Only if all these different stakeholders are equally engaged in the learning event they will be able to build up a strong political power to transform the newly acquired knowledge into action.
  • Learning actors need to be ensured in equal treatment and consideration during the learning process. Learning actors may represent different content and organizational perspective, but the carefully designed learning events should ensure that there is no distinction among them and that each learning actor is considered both as a knowledge contributor and knowledge recipient.
  • Learning process needs to be carefully explained and facilitated by a learning broker. The learning process has to be systematically initiated and structured to ensure that all perspectives are recognized and processed. For this process to be successful, a learning broker needs to oversee and facilitate it to ensure the recurring character of the Learning Spiral as well as its long-term development.
  • The best approach is for governments to learn from each other through a continuous knowledge exchange. The Learning Spiral uses an ongoing iterative process that reflects a variety of perspectives. The nature of such a process means that the knowledge to be learned and applied is always validated and updated in real time based on latest experiences on the subject matter.
  • Successful governmental learning requires individual as well as organizational learning considerations. First, an appropriate learning design has to be applied to enhance behavioral change on the individual level. Second, the change has to happen in the institutional environment of affected governmental units so that they support and reinforce the changes at the organizational level. And third, policy actors need to be enabled to apply the newly acquired knowledge in their political environments.
  • Ensuring a sense of social belonging among learning actors can lead to continuous and long-term knowledge exchange. Such exchange can happen through networks and communities of practice where the participants exchange and transform their experiences, leading to a potential next spin of the Learning Spiral.

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