Skip to:

Concept Note

International Policy Implementation Lab  

at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

March 2014 


Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) is building an “International Policy Implementation Lab” – a unique institution that will collaborate with faculty to develop, drive, and support international, impact-oriented research, problem-based teaching, and long-term engagement with applied policy implementation problems around the world.


Understanding Policy Implementation in Different Countries, Organizations, and Cultures

At FSI and elsewhere, Stanford faculty and students are deeply engaged in international policy analysis on health, security, education, governance, and other issues.  They use a variety of analytical tools to ask critical questions about the motivations, efficacy, and outcomes of policy choices.  But there is a distinction between engaging in that important form of policy analysis and understanding how policymakers and organizations change longstanding practices and actually execute policy, often in the face of enormous institutional inertia. 

Faculty who want to examine and inform the implementation of policy periodically seek to create and maintain relationships with organizations capable of affecting or implementing policy around the world – relationships that endure long enough to produce mutual trust and afford faculty the opportunity to witness and inform the execution of policy.  In other cases, partnerships with policymaking organizations may be beneficial to a research project, but not essential to it.  Researchers also need to consider how a variety of policy problems involving issues such as food security, migration, and development play out differently across a variety of national, regional, organizational, and cultural settings.

The value of increasing our understanding of how implementation works – involving issues ranging from access to health care for the poor to managing arms control agreements – is substantial.  An appreciation for how policy is implemented enables faculty to extend the scope of their research, enrich their teaching, and ideally, achieve a greater impact on the ground.  


Concept and Functions

FSI leadership and staff have consulted with the majority of FSI faculty across its eleven centers and programs, seeking guidance and ideas as the Implementation Lab is being developed.   These conversations have had a powerful effect in shaping the concept behind the Lab and determining how it will function.

Based on the advice received from FSI faculty, the Implementation Lab will support ventures that are grounded in cutting-edge, policy-oriented research on a specific topic of international relevance (e.g., arms control, refugee protection, global health, or education in rural China) and which share at least one of two characteristics:  (1) They involve long-term engagement with the implementation of policy, either through appropriate external partnerships or through other channels that have an impact on how policies are implemented, and (2) They connect their research agenda to interdisciplinary, problem-based education opportunities (including interdisciplinary classes and mentored student research), giving students an opportunity to work closely on a relevant policy problem and its implementation dimensions.

The fact that these characteristics can be complementary but also occasionally in some tension with each other is an important premise for the Lab.  For example, a problem-based class connected to an applied research project with a government partner could yield unique pedagogical benefits. At the same time, engaging students in faculty research projects and external relationships may increase the cost of a venture in terms of time, resources, and complexity.  Among other things, we expect the Implementation Lab to act as a means to achieve synergies across these characteristics where possible.

Pursuing ventures involving cutting-edge research, lasting external relationships, and innovative pedagogy entails a major commitment on the part of faculty members.  Demands for time, specialized resources, customized student engagement, a long-term horizon, and an appreciation for the often opaque policy formulation and implementation process pose a set of considerable challenges for researchers seeking to enhance their capacity for policy-oriented research to achieve on-the-ground impact.

For example, research on the delivery of health care in rural India, government reform in China, or the planning and administration of refugee camps all pose this set of serious challenges.  One of the more notable challenges is that external organizations, whether health NGOs in India, local governments in China, or a United Nations agency, each have their own unique culture, institutional practices, and set of motivations.   But the rewards of understanding and working effectively with those organizations are potentially invaluable to Stanford teaching and research. 

To encourage and support these ventures, the Implementation Lab will provide targeted funding and a variety of support functions.  The plan is for these activities to be phased in during the course of 2014 and 2015, based on the advice and feedback of faculty and others who are early participants in the Lab.


Spring and Summer 2014: Initial Phase

The Lab staff will start work with a cohort of faculty participants whose projects reflect the Lab’s interest in policy implementation integrated with student engagement and research.  Together, they will develop a Lab that best supports the needs of FSI faculty and others interested in working with the Lab from across campus.

In spring and summer 2014, the Implementation Lab will test out different ideas and services with faculty.  The resulting lessons will yield a prioritization among the different functions and a timeline for their rollout.

Based on initial interviews, the Lab is exploring the development of the following functions: 

  • Facilitating ties with selected external organizations, helping to manage ongoing relationships with external organizations, conducting research on appropriate partners, and connecting partners to different entities within FSI and Stanford. 
  • Connecting faculty with Stanford resources for practical advice and help in dealing with on-the-ground challenges encountered in working in developing countries. 
  • Analyzing and articulating the characteristics that breed the most successful external relationships and partnerships.
  • Assisting with data visualization and analysis (which could be useful not only in studying the implementation process, but in exploring the rationale behind particular policy changes in a manner that can help policymakers understand the stakes of their decisions). 
  • Helping faculty to design distinctive (graduate/professional or upper division undergraduate) interdisciplinary classes focused on concrete policy problemsrelated to faculty research projects and partnerships. 
  • Identifying and facilitating opportunities for enhanced student learning on international policy implementation through internships, fellowships, or other activities.
  • Creating, cultivating and sustaining a Lab identity and community among all participants that facilitates the exchange of ideas, best practices, and data across Lab projects.
  • Playing a convening role by identifying and gathering faculty from across FSI and across campus who have intersecting interests and who might benefit from collaboration.
  • Developing a campus-wide network of Lab allies and experts who help advance the Lab’s goals with key colleagues at Stanford and provide technical expertise needed for Lab projects.
  • Writing cases on projects and the policy implementation process.
  • Providing assistance with external communications to help draw attention and new resources to specific Lab projects.
  • Assisting with identifying and obtaining new sources of funding.


Other Programs at Stanford

The entity FSI is seeking to forge is different from other action-oriented programs at Stanford, most notably the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design (the and the Law School’s new Policy Lab, but is likely to be complementary to them. The Law School Policy Lab, for example, has the laudable goal of helping students learn through conducting policy analysis or regulatory drafting for policymakers and others seeking to influence public policy. 

While the Implementation Lab will share some elements of the two programs (such as the’s model for interdisciplinary, problem-based courses and the Law School’s interest in generating useful, policy-relevant research), it will be specifically focused on supporting long-term projects that involve close study of specific international settings and engaging students and faculty in the study of policy implementation in different national, organizational, and cultural contexts.

The Implementation Lab is still taking shape and will require further consultation and careful thinking about logistics and resources.  That said, this venture appears exceptionally promising in light of consultations with faculty and other potential stakeholders, both because of the likely contribution to Stanford and the impact beyond our campus.



Share this Page