• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 29th May, 2014

Policy transfer: why “copy and paste” is not enough

“Copy and paste” is rarely good advice for those planning the transfer of a prevention programme from one country to another. But how should policy makers approach the delicate task of ensuring that effective interventions take root in their new location? The story of how of how America’s well-evidenced Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring programme was introduced to Ireland offers some answers.

Youth mentoring programmes like BBBS have been adopted in a range of countries and cultures, including the Czech Republic, Australia and Russia. Their aim is to enhance young people’s social, emotional and cognitive development by facilitating one-to-one supportive relationships (or ‘matches’) with an unrelated adult mentor.

Mentoring programmes have a century-long history in the United States. But there was no such tradition in Ireland when BBBS was transferred there by Foróige, the national youth organisation, in 2001.

Operating in the west of Ireland, the programme has expanded to a point where there are over 300 ‘matches’ in place at any time. Results from a randomised controlled trial identify a positive impact on outcomes for yong people and reinforce evidence from earlier studies, including a large-scale evaluation in the United States.

However, good results in Ireland were never guaranteed. Indeed, an attempt to replicate BBBS in the UK was unable to make sufficient headway and closed in 2004 after six years.

Contrasting the approach taken in Ireland with the lack of success in Britain, researchers from the National University of Ireland, Galway, investigated four aspects of “policy transfer”, drawing on data from a large, mixed-methods study. They conducted interviews with Foróige staff (including the Chief Executive), BBBS staff, mentors and parents, and also looked at the programme manual, annual reports, statistics and publicity materials.

The first aspect they consider crucial to success is the ‘pre-decision phase’. Having recognised that group work was inappropriate for some vulnerable young people they wished to support, Foróige’s senior managers identified BBBS as a proven, evidence-based model for mentoring. They also chose to work in partnership with Ireland’s statutory Health Service Executive (HSE), visiting Philadelphia together to see the programme in action. This gave national policy makers a stake in the venture from the outset.

Rather than simply copying the American programme, Foróige decided to ‘emulate’ it. The core model was adopted, but the overall implementation was adapted for local circumstances. A manual was written for an Irish context, and minor changes were made to reflect cultural differences.

A decision was taken to offer BBBS as part of integrated youth services. This helped to smooth the transition of youn people in and out of the program. Given widespread public concern in Ireland about child abuse in the church, schools and voluntary organisations, it was also important that the Social Service Inspectorate was asked to formally sanction the programme’s child protection protocols.

A second key aspect of the transfer is the compatibility of BBBS with national policies for promoting children’s welfare and healthy development. Legislation in 2001 supported programmes designed to enhance the personal and social development of youth in disadvantaged areas. Likewise, the Irish Government’s 2007 Agenda for Children stressed the need to improve outcomes specifically targeted by BBBS, such as mental health, education and community engagement.

Thirdly, BBBS has gained the support of parents, young people, mentors, youth workers and the wider public. Project managers admitted to initial scepticism about the programme, regarding it as “very foreign”. The turning point came when they discovered that the young people they worked with were enthusiastic about the idea.

More attention to detail

The final aspect of policy transfer discussed by the Galway researchers is the overall feasibility of implementing BBBS in Ireland. Here, they highlight the way that BBBS in Ireland was offered through existing youth services. This meant the programme benefited immediately from the existing trust between these projects and young people, families, statutory bodies and other agencies. By contrast, BBBS in the UK was introduced as a standalone programme by a small organisation that struggled to attract referrals from statutory agencies and other relevant services.

The next challenge for BBBS and Foróige in Ireland is to use the evidence that mentoring is an effective way to support isolated and vulnerable young people in areas where it is not yet available. The lessons from its successful transfer across the Atlantic will, meanwhile, encourage policy makers and practitioners elsewhere to plan the transfer of effective programs with more attention to detail.


Brady, B. & Curtin, C. (2012). Big Brothers Big Sisters comes to Ireland: a case study in policy transfer. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 1433-1439.

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