James Breiding’s Event on How To Do Comparative Policy Analysis

Authored By 
John Dearborn
Publication date 
October 26, 2020

Update October 28, 2020: Slides available.

On Friday October 23, ISPS and the Policy Lab hosted a policy-related skills training workshop titled “Big Lessons from Small Nations: How to Do Comparative Policy Analysis.” The session was led by R. James Breiding, the CEO of S8 Nations and a fellow at Harvard’s School for International Development. Breiding spoke about his book, Too Small to Fail: Why Some Small Nations Outperform Larger Ones and How They Are Reshaping the World, published by Harper Business. John Dearborn, a Postdoctoral Associate at the ISPS Policy Lab, moderated the discussion. Participants in the workshop included undergraduate and graduate students from across the university with an interest in policy analysis.

Breiding’s research focuses on why small countries – Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, and Switzerland – are among the world’s most successful nations. Too Small to Fail explains how these nations have made a virtue out of their physical limitations to achieve significant policy successes. The book seeks to understand these nations’ recipes for achieving better-educated, more egalitarian, and wealthier populations.

The first part of Breiding’s presentation laid out criteria for diagnosing the health of a nation. These metrics include disposable income, carbon emissions, patent filings per capita, debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, trust in government, social cohesion, and happiness. On all such measures, Breiding found that these smaller nations generally outperformed their larger counterparts. They have been able to create wealth via exports, spur innovation, foster greater social trust, and provide a more equitable education to their citizens. More generally, Breiding argued that these smaller nations have been forced to be more adaptable because of their size limitations.

Second, Breiding highlighted the ways in which societies will increasingly be stress-tested by major challenges. These include pandemics, climate change, the increased longevity of nations populations and associated challenges for health care and pension systems, information openness and the rise of “fake news,” and the effect the rise of artificial intelligence will pose for job security. Breiding considered how smaller nations may be more able to pass the “marshmallow test” of addressing these slowly unfolding but critical challenges, providing an example for the rest of the world.

Third, Breiding gave examples of particular policy successes from each country covered in Too Small to Fail. For example, Denmark was highlighted for its approach to renewable energy and the quality of life in cities. Finland stands out for its primary education system. Israel has creating conditions that are especially favorable to tech startup companies. And Singapore is exemplary for its cost-efficient health care system.

The subsequent discussion and questions from the audience focused both on the argument of Too Small to Fail and on the research process that went into the book. In the United States, it is common to hear states described as “laboratories of democracy,” and Breiding took this approach and applied it internationally. As part of his research, Breiding visited each country and interviewed both leaders and citizens about particular policy successes. For example, to study Finland’s success in education policy, Breiding consulted a wide range of stakeholders, including policy leaders, school principals, teachers, parents, and students.

The conversation also turned to how policy analysis should consider factors beyond traditional measures of national success like gross domestic product. In Breiding’s view, attributes such as humility are important to explaining how a nation can be successful. In these smaller countries, humility and modesty have yielded several benefits, including fewer conflicts, less of a winner-take-all mindset, and a greater willingness to see cooperation with other nations as important.

Isabelle Lee, a Yale senior and political science major, spoke about her experience as an intern at S8 Nations. Lee explained the importance of S8’s work in highlighting the stories of policy successes in other nations, and she detailed her own experience and work as part of that initiative. Breiding and Lee emphasized that S8 is interested in recruiting more student interns to the organization.

Above all, “Big Lessons from Small Nations” highlighted the importance of being willing to “look over the garden hedge.” To practically analyze policy, scholars and students must be willing to expand their horizons and to look at policy successes abroad. This can provide a richer array of policy options to consider, analyze, and advocate for in order to solve major problems and to transcend political divides. The presentation and discussion highlighted how American political and policy debates can be better informed by looking to the experiences of other nations.

To learn more about the work of S8 Nations and opportunities to get involved, please contact R. James Breiding via email at Breiding@post.harvard.edu and visit the S8 Nations website.

The next ISPS policy-related skill training event will be on Friday, October 30. Nate Loewentheil, the Vice President of Camber Creek, will present on “How to Write a Policy Brief.” You can register for the event here.