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Special Issue Article: Policy Failure

Public Policy and Administration

2015, Vol. 30(3–4) 221–242
What is policy failure? ! The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/0952076714565416

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Allan McConnell
University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia;
Visiting Professor, School of Government and Public Policy,
University of Strathclyde

The discipline of public policy has struggled to come to terms with how we may
conceive of ‘policy failure’. It tends to assume either that failure is self-evident or
that it can be assessed by means of examining the gap between government goals
and outcomes. Often, there are multiple caveats that seem too difficult to address –
particularly the role of perceptions, which in turn are often dependent on whether or
not the policy is supported. This ground-breaking article builds on and refines existing
literature. It turns on its head the multiple methodological challenges surrounding what
constitutes policy failure (such as competing goals and variance over time) and suggests
that such seemingly impenetrable challenges actually help illuminate our understanding.
In doing so, it argues that once we conceive of studying policy failure as ‘art and craft’,
we are better placed to navigate the messy realpolitik of types and degrees of failure, as
well as ambiguities and tensions between them. The groundwork for doing so is based
on a working definition of failure, namely that a policy fails, even if it is successful in
some minimal respects, if it does not fundamentally achieve the goals that proponents
set out to achieve, and opposition is great and/or support is virtually non-existent.

Policy failure, policy disasters, policy fiascos, policy evaluation

Policy failures seem pervasive, with no policy sector or country appearing immune
to the operational challenges and political pitfalls of failure. A simple internet
search for news stories at the time of writing produced headings such as
‘Obama’s Foreign-Policy Failures Go Far Beyond Iraq’, ‘Homelessness Crisis

Corresponding author:
Allan McConnell, University of Sydney, Merewether Building H04, Darlington Campus, Sydney, New South
Wales 2006, Australia.
Email: allan.mcconnell@sydney.edu.au
222 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

Show “Social Policy Failure”’ and ‘Prisons Face Overcrowding Due to Policy
Failure’. We can also add to this list, other prominent attributions of policy failure,
such as the Poll Tax and Child Support Agency (UK), home insulation program
(Australia), response to the global financial crisis (Iceland), ‘No Child Left Behind’
(USA) and Guantanamo Bay detention camp (USA). Yet despite the apparent
confidence and conviction of many that certain policy outcomes constitute ‘failure’,
the more that researchers delve into the topic and seek to define failure, the more
they seem trapped in a maze of methodological difficulties, such as multiple goals,
failure for whom, and not least varying perceptions. Disputes over whether a policy
has actually ‘failed’ are commonplace. Allegations of policy failure from oppos-
ition parties, the media and others, typically produce counter discourses from
supporters attempting to shore up support for policies by claiming that the alleged
failure is in fact a success.
The lack of a means of navigating the issue of what constitutes policy failure is a
significant one. It is a barrier to comparing individual case studies, undertaking
comparative research and indeed to understanding the causes of failure, which
often gets mired in post-failure blame games. Unless we can find a way of navigat-
ing the maze of what constitutes policy failure, we risk repeating the mistakes of the
past, both in terms of producing policy failures and learning from failure (Howlett,
2012). In this context, this article provides an original primer to assist analysts in
navigating the maze of issues surrounding what constitutes policy failure. First, it
examines the paucity of public policy writings on policy failure – from those
touching on the subject tangentially, to those tackling it directly. Second, it iden-
tifies a number of key methodological difficulties involved in any attempt to
comprehend the nature of policy failure, including perceptions, grey areas, ambi-
guities and variations over time. Third and finally, it argues that once we accept the
messy realpolitik of failure, we are better primed to approach the subject, armed
with awareness of the ‘art and craft’ of understanding failure, types of failure,
degrees of failure and tensions between failure and success.
While some of us might consider failure to be a simple phenomenon that ‘just is’
because it breaches a sense of common morality, I refer to the realpolitik of policy
failure for an important reason. It indicates that to engage in a more meaningful way
with the real world complexities of policy failure, we need to accept that failure is
bound up with issues of politics and power, including contested views about its
existence, and the power to produce an authoritative and accepted failure narrative.

The public policy literature on defining policy failure

Failure is more newsworthy than success, and political analysis is generally more
interesting when it includes (at least to some degree) strong aspects of failure:
whether it is perverse policy outcomes, corrupt practices, or public officials in
the spotlight for misjudgement. Policy analysis itself is a diverse practice, with
varying traditions and purposes from the provision of advice to policy makers in
the interests of societal betterment (Lasswell, 1971) to highlighting social injustices
McConnell 223

(Dryzek, 2006). Surprisingly, there is a relative paucity of writings on policy failure.

Perhaps one main reason is that deep analysis requires confronting the near intract-
able methodological issues mentioned previously. Nevertheless, to varying degrees
there are broad strands of policy literature that help inform us. In some, the
concept of failure is tackled in relatively ‘light touch’ fashion while in others
there are direct attempts to focus on the nature of policy failure.
One of the most prevalent is single case studies of failure. Examples include
Hurricane Katrina, anti-money laundering (AML) policies, the ‘war on drugs’,
Australian asylum seeker policy, childcare provision, US Department of
Homeland Security, housing reform in Scotland, nuclear regulation in Japan and
British security policy after the Cold War (see e.g. Buchanan, 2010; Dyson, 2006;
Kearns and Lawson, 2009; Kettl, 2004; Kingston, 2011; Lewis, 2012; Sharman,
2011; Walsh, 2006). The study of single cases often assumes a priori that the case is
a ‘failure’ and does not provide a definition. Even some comparative case studies
are prone to assuming that failure is self-evident and needs no definition, e.g. see
Grossman (2013) on economic policy disasters. Others provide ad hoc definitions
(or make ad hoc assumptions appropriate to the case study), such as costs out-
weighing benefits (Sharman, 2011) and the non-achievement of policy making
goals. As an example of the latter, Walsh (2006: 495) suggests that ‘Policy failure
occurs when the decision makers responsible for initiating the consideration of and
approving new policies conclude that current policy is no longer achieving the
political and program goals they prefer’. The inclusion of ‘politics’ is important
here, because it alerts us to the possibility of a disjunction between political and
programme outcomes.
Public policy literature also concerns itself with policy outcomes. The literature
on policy evaluation is a major contributor in this regard, because it focuses expli-
citly on understanding the methods, tools and techniques of how we assess whether
policies work or not. For the rationalist, scientific tradition, policy outcomes can
typically be measured and assessed against original goals, using a variety of tech-
niques such as cost–benefit analysis, multi-attribute value functions and a wide
range of statistical methods from regression to multivariate time series modelling
(see e.g. Argyrous, 2009; Gupta, 2001). It is assumed that failure can be observed
and measured against whichever standard we choose – typically programme goals.
Yet the pluralistic nature of the social sciences has also produced post-positivist
methods and frameworks, emphasising the role of perceptions in ‘constructing’
failure as a political act. Therefore, by implication, ‘failure’ is a construction by
those whose social power allows them to articulate and succeed in securing a
dominant failure narrative (Taylor and Balloch, 2005). Some of the more nuanced
literature on evaluation straddles this methodological divide. For example, Vedung
(2013) identifies six policy evaluation models, where assessments are conducted
respectively against goals, goals plus side effects, client need, views of multiple
stakeholders and the judgement of independent peer reviewers. The very fact
that such diversity exists seems to compound the difficult of understanding the
nature of failure when the ‘goalposts’ keep moving.
224 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

The literature on policy implementation is also important in terms of under-

standing outcomes. The ground-breaking study of implementation by Pressman
and Wildavsky (1973) was produced amid a climate that many post-war policy
aspirations and policies did not always translate into workable policy. The prime
focus of a burgeoning literature (see e.g. Barrett and Fudge, 1981; Hood, 1976;
Mazmanian and Sabatier, 1981) was on a variety of ‘top down’, ‘bottom up’ and
hybrid explanation for ‘implementation gaps’, with little attention paid to the
nature of failure per se. Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) themselves did not
define policy failure, other than seeing its roots just as much in flawed ideas, as
in the inefficiencies or adverse chance circumstances of implementation. The near
default position of subsequent implementation studies was captured by Hogwood
and Gunn (1984) who describe policy failure as either non-implementation where
the policy is not put into effect as intended, or unsuccessful implementation where,
the policy is enacted but circumstances are such that the policy fails to achieve the
desired outcomes or results.
Beyond evaluation and implementation, the discipline of public policy has rich
and varied foci, but only tangential focus on policy failure. The general tendency is
to make the occasional passing commentary on policy failure, but not doing so in
any systematic or conceptually structured manner – largely because studying fail-
ure is a means to an end. For example, the study of policy formation and design
processes addresses issues such as why some policy options are included in decision
making processes while others are excluded (Schneider and Ingram, 1997; Stone
2012). Failure here is assumed in a general way to be policies which don’t solve
problems, don’t act in the public interest or contribute to a more democratic polity.
In contrast to ‘light touch’ or tangential discussion of failure, there exists a
handful of works explicitly on policy failure – or to be precise, an extreme form
of failure that can be described as ‘policy fiascoes’, ‘policy disasters’ and ‘policy
blunders’. They have varying foci, covering typically the causes of failure rather
than the nature of failure per se. Some are exceptionally vague on what constitutes
failure, assuming it to be a general inability to achieve effective outcomes (Wallis,
2011). Ingram and Mann’s (1980) writing in the context of the economic and pol-
itical pressures of the mid to late 1970s do not define failure but point to many of
the difficulties of measuring failure, including varying perceptions, unrealistic goals
and isolating a policy from its interlinkages with other policies. Hogwood and
Peters (1985) use a medical metaphor to equate policy failure with the types of
pathologies which beset the human body such as starvation and overindulgence,
although there is no definition of failure, other than a general assumption that it is
a condition that is ‘not healthy’ and may be subject to varied diagnoses from
different experts. A subsequent debate by Dunleavy and Gray on UK policy dis-
asters epitomises many of the difficulties in defining policy failure. Dunleavy (1995:
52) defines policy disasters as ‘significantly and substantially costly failures of
omission or commission or by government’, while acknowledging pragmatic diffi-
culties of producing a suitable definition. Gray (1998) in his critique adds a number
of criteria that should be taken into consideration (including being considered as a
McConnell 225

disaster by a wide range of opinion, and producing extensive disruption to social

and political processes) but stops short of defining disasters and is clearly of the
view that they are more severe than ‘mere failures’ (p. 76). A parallel work by Gray
(1998: 8) goes further and – while not defining failure – defines policy disasters as
‘. . . policies which have failed against nearly every possible criteria of evaluation,
caused considerable disruption which was foreseeable and/or avoidable, and
triggered complex trails of unintended consequences’.
Bovens and ‘t Hart, writing together and in combination with others (Bovens
and ‘t Hart, 1996; Bovens et al., 2001a; see also Gray and ‘t Hart, 1998), directly
address issues of failure. In their study of policy fiascos, they focuses on the inter-
pretation and construction of failures by different actors (Bovens and ‘t Hart,
1996). The contention is that ‘Failure is not inherent in policy events themselves.
‘“Failure” is a judgement about events’ (Bovens and ‘t Hart, 1996: 21) that is
contingent on who is judging, the measures they use, the information basis and
the time period they assess. A particular contribution here is to dissect the framing
of failure into four main sub frames (severity, causes, motivations and blame). The
first of these is particularly important for understanding the nature of failure but it
suggests that failure cannot be determined by a fixed measure. As Brändström and
Kuipers (2003) indicate in a subsequent work inspired by Bovens and ‘t Hart,
failures may be framed as localised, marginal and even routine, or deeper rooted
in the core values of society. According to this argument, ascertaining the scale of
failure requires a strong element of subjectivity.
A more extended treatment of failure – especially in empirical terms – is con-
tained in an edited volume by Bovens et al. (2001a) examining success and failure in
public governance, spanning four policy sectors and six countries. Crucially they
separate and recognise the potential for conflict between programme and political
outcomes, while tailoring the criteria for each individual case study. For example,
the decline of the steel sector includes a measure related to the financial costs of
restructuring, while the criteria for the blood transfusion sector makes no mention
of costs and focuses instead on criteria such as the effectiveness of donor selection.
Although not developed conceptually, Bovens et al. (2001b) allude to the complex
relationship between success and failure, especially in describing reform of the steel
sector as a case of ‘non failure’ rather than ‘straightforward success’ (p.596).
More recently, a major book on ‘policy blunders’ in the UK by King and Crewe
(2013) is an empirically-focused examination of many policy failures in the UK,
from the Child Support Agency to reforms of the London Underground. Their
definition of a ‘blunder’ alludes to degrees of failure while also touching on the
political repercussion of failure. They define a blunder as ‘. . . an episode in which a
government adopts a specific course of action in order to achieve one or more
objectives and, as result largely or wholly of its own mistakes either fails completely
to achieve these objectives, it does achieve some or all of them but at a totally
disproportionate cost, or else does achieve some or all of them but contrives at the
same time to cause a significant amount of “collateral damage” in the form of
unintended and undesired consequences’ (King and Crewe 2013: 4). Yet the
226 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

difficulty in using this definition for ‘policy failure’ is that it attributes causality
principally to government, rather than separating failure and causality, and seeing
them as related but independent. It is possible that a policy may fail because it is
knocked off course by unforeseeable circumstances but remains a failure neverthe-
less, e.g. public infrastructure projects cancelled because of the global financial
One final area of study to highlight is recent writings on policy success (Marsh
and McConnell, 2009; McConnell 2010a, 2010b, 2012). They examine failure inso-
far as it is the ‘mirror image of success’ (McConnell, 2010b: 356). McConnell
(2010b: 356–357) suggests that ‘A policy fails if it does not achieve the goals that
proponents set out to achieve, and opposition is great and/or support is virtually
non-existent’. These works confront many of the methodological difficulties in
comprehending issues such as varying perceptions, multiple benchmarks and the
issue of failure for whom. They also build on Bovens et al. (2001a) by recognising
different types of successes (process, programme and politics), reflecting the com-
plexity of policy outcomes and the realities that policies may succeed in some
respect but not others. However, in these works, policy failure is tackled tangen-
tially as something of a by-product to understanding policy success. Furthermore,
the discussion by McConnell of a spectrum of policy outcomes from success to
failure (five categories in all) lacks a degree of parsimony that might better serve the
study of this fledgling field of study.
In sum, literature on policy failure is remarkably thin on the ground and often
lacks explicit conceptualisation. Even many of the works focused explicitly on
failure, assume failure to be self-evident or struggle to provide a usable definition.
In order to develop our understanding much further, I now present in detail for the
first time, a series of methodological difficulties in comprehending what constitutes
policy failure. As will be argued, their very existence – often considered to be
crucial impediments to our understanding of policy failure – actually helps advance
our comprehension of this understudied phenomenon.

The methodological difficulties of defining policy failure

Differing perceptions
In essence, what one individual perceives as a failure may be viewed by another as
‘not a failure’ or even a ‘success’. Such issues get to the heart of the methodological
diversity of political science and the social sciences more generally (Hay, 2002;
Marsh and Stoker, 2010). Political life, whether it be the health of democratic
systems or changing policy agendas, is studied from an array of assumptions
around ontology (what is the true nature of the phenomena we are studying?),
epistemology (how do we know that this is the true nature?) and methodology
(how should we study this phenomenon?). Needless to say the multiplicity of
fine-grained debates and philosophical reflections cannot be dwelt on here, but
for present purposes we should recognise two counter tendencies – as reflected in
McConnell 227

debates within the evaluation literature. The first, we can call the rational scientific
tradition, which in terms of ‘failure’ translates into the assumption that failure is an
objective fact (see e.g. Davidson, 2005 and Gupta, 2001 on evaluation). A counter-
tendency is the interpretivist, constructivist and discursive tradition, which views
the world very much as contingent on individual perceptions, which typically vary,
depending on who is ‘perceiving’ (see e.g. Edelman, 1988; Fischer, 2003; Stone,
2012). In any quest to understand policy failure, therefore, there is a real difficulty
in reconciling two competing phenomena with seemingly equal plausibility. It
would be difficult to dispute the fact that a government failing to implement a
controversial ‘rendering’ policy (terrorist suspects being sent overseas for interro-
gation) constitutes a failure when matched against originally government inten-
tions, but equally the outcome may be seen as a success for those arguing that
rendering poses high risks of human rights violations.

Differing benchmarks
The word ‘failure’ has negative connotations (even if we think some positive bene-
fits might ensue) and brings to the fore a relational issue, i.e. failure in relation to
what? Once we unpack this issue, relying on many of the struggles of the direct and
indirect attempts to write about policy failure, there are a host of different, non-
mutually exclusive possibilities. They include failure to:

. meet original objectives, e.g. to reduce alcohol-related crime by 10%,

. be implemented as intended, e.g. establish a new agency for food safety,
. benefit the intended target group, e.g. women over the age of 55,
. provide benefits that outweigh the costs, e.g. lasting peace vs. loss of lives in
military intervention,
. satisfy criteria that are highly valued in that policy sector, e.g. national security
in the intelligence sector,
. meet legal, moral or ethical standards, e.g. protecting human rights,
. garner support from key stakeholders in that sector, e.g. farmers, small
. improve on the previous state of affairs, e.g. incidences of corruption are less in
number since creation of new anti-corruption watchdog and
. improve by comparison to a similar jurisdiction, e.g. one provincial government
improving educational performance relative to a neighbouring provincial

Understanding failure would be straightforward if there was universal agreement

on failures being defined by breach of a universally agreed benchmark of X, but
this is simply not possible, given the existence of multiple and often conflicting
evaluation measures (Vedung, 2013) and also the propensity of policy opponents to
emphasise those aspects that have failed to be achieved, and for policy supporters
to emphasise those that have. For example, a government’s defence that its
228 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

investment in education has increased by 10% over the previous five years, could be
countered by critics who argue that funding is still lower than competitors and is
failing to translate into improved educational standards for students.

Grey areas
Differing perceptions aside, failure is rarely ‘all or nothing’. Typically there are
shades of grey, where judgement is needed in terms of the interpretation and
significance that should be given to shortfalls, lack of evidence and conflicts.
Ambiguity is not only part of the policy formation process (Zahariadis, 2003)
(indeed Stone, 2012, argues that ambiguous and ‘feelgood’ language is necessary
for the purpose of alliance building) but it is also a recurring theme in policy
implementation (Matland, 1995) as well as how we evaluate complex policy out-
comes. There is a certain logic, even without adopting a rational-scientific perspec-
tive, to the view that we should identify what goal or objective was set, and then
ascertain if it was in fact met. But what if targets constantly altered, such as the case
of shifting mandates for forestry policy in Canada (Rayner, 2012)? One can con-
ceive of original goals being met at the same as a failure to meet goals that have
been ‘added on’. Or what if a goal was only partially fulfilled? If for example a
government’s anti-drink driving campaign aims to reduce offences by 50% but the
reduction is only 40%, does this mean the policy has failed? Do the shortfalls
negate the success, or should we weigh up each. Of course, the issue then becomes
one of where we draw the line. There is no scientific formula for making such
We may also not have sufficient evidence to make a judgement on policy failure.
Appropriate information may simply not be available (on patient care or the extent
of child abuse) or may even be hidden from view in the sense that a policy may have
failed against a hidden agenda goal, but we will never know because that goal is not
in the public domain. A hidden goal of public policy, to some degree, may be to
manage a difficult issue down or off the policy agenda, through a ‘placebo’ policy
which may be more successful in terms of political agenda management because
there is the appearance that an issue is being addressed, but may do little to actually
address complex and ‘wicked’ causes and symptoms (Gustafsson, 1983;
McConnell, 2010a). Arguably, many social issues such as poverty, drug abuse
and homelessness are ‘wicked issues’ but even the creation of the US
Department of Homeland Security has been considered a move to present a unified
approach to public and political fear of terrorist threats, rather than a proportion-
ate response to actual threats (Friedman, 2011). Such issues will continue to be
debated but the key point of relevance here is that – albeit difficult to ascertain with
absolute certainty – policies may fail in some respects but succeed against latent
political goals.
Furthermore, policies often have multiple goals, and so a further and exception-
ally difficult issue is how we weigh up and prioritise failure in one goal, against
success in another. For example, New York’s Family Rewards Scheme which
McConnell 229

provided financial incentives for the very poorest families subject to them under-
taking certain activities and attaining particular outcomes failed to make any
difference to school attendance or academic performance but was successful in
increasing families’ use of medical care and reducing hardship (Miller and
Riccio, 2011). Such grey areas pose serious difficulties for analysts in terms of
whether they can say with any degree of comprehensiveness that a policy has

Failure for whom?

Public policies often have ‘target groups’ (such as smokers or young drivers under-
25) and policy makers hope that the circumstances and/or behaviour of these
groups will be altered by the requisite policy. At times a policy may be designed
to limit the rights/rewards of a target group (those convicted of fraud being unable
to keep the proceeds of crime) or provide/expand the benefits to a particular group
(the right to same-sex marriage). Crucially, therefore, the issue of ‘failure for
whom?’ adds further complexity. A policy that failed to encourage parents to
provide healthier lunches for their children when attending school would make
little difference to families with no school-age children. In fact, a policy that
failed to deliver benefits for one group may be successful for another. A failed
attempt by a local government to build a waste facility next to a local community,
would also be a failure for the commercial contractor specialising in waste removal,
but a success for local residents who campaigned against the project. If a policy
fails some groups/stakeholders but brings successes for others, there is a real dif-
ficulty in weighing-up these complex outcomes and ascertaining which
matters most.

Variance over time

Attributing the word ‘failure’ to a particular set of policy outcomes seems defini-
tive, as though policy is irredeemable from that point onwards. Yet in addition to
the ‘grey areas’ identified previously, a further challenge in ascertaining policy
failure is that there are multiple points in the policy cycle when an evaluation
may occur, leading potentially to different outcomes. For example, projections of
failure at the policy making stage may differ from an evaluation of outcomes after
implementation. Furthermore, policy that failed in the short term may yield suc-
cesses in the long term. An often cited example is the planning disaster (Hall, 1982)
of Sydney Opera House which was over a decade late and 14 times over budget, but
has since become one of the world’s top tourist attractions. Even policies that
‘failed’ can help open policy windows for further reform. The highly controversial
poll tax in the UK between 1989 and 1993 (in effect a per capita tax on the right to
vote) paved the way for a reformed property tax (Council Tax), addressing many of
the deficiencies of a local tax system that had been resistant to serious reform over
the previous century. Weighing up a period of ‘failure’ against a period of ‘success’
230 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

seems an almost intractable issue, taking us even further away from the idea that
failure is defined by a clear and constant set of undesirable circumstances, ascer-
tained only at a fixed point in time.
Overall, therefore, understanding what constitutes policy failure is beset by a
series of methodological difficulties that seem to make the challenge insurmount-
able. However, I would argue that we can advance our understanding by embra-
cing its vagaries and recognising that ‘policy analysis in the real world’ (to
coin Hogwood and Gunn) does not need perfect answers to advance our under-
standing. Policy sciences, as a discipline, has always proceeded incrementally
(deLeon, 1988).

Moving forward: A primer to help cope with the ‘maze’

of policy failure
In order to help make sense of the messiness and contestability of failure, I modify
the earlier definition by (McConnell, 2010b: 357) and suggest we consider that:

A policy fails, even if it is successful in some minimal respects, if it does not funda-
mentally achieve the goals that proponents set out to achieve, and opposition is great
and/or support is virtually non-existent.

There are several implications of this wording that require discussion, as well ana-
lytical issues that need built up from the definition. Doing so will also illustrate the
value in modifying McConnell’s work on success in order to help develop our
preparedness to enter the ‘maze’ of policy failure.

Understanding failure as ‘art and craft’

In his classic book Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis,
Wildavsky (1987: 16) wrote that the ‘. . . technical basis of policy analysis is weak.
In part its limitations as those of social science: innumerable discrete propositions,
of varying validity and uncertain applicability, occasionally touching but not neces-
sarily related, like beads on a string’. A theme throughout is that in the face of
complex and uncertain environments with innumerable potential problems and
differing moral views on the way forward, policy analysis requires inventiveness,
imagination, judgements, art and craft. I would argue that any search for a scien-
tific, unambiguous and value-free definition of policy failure would face serious
difficulty in being able to cope with the complex, contested and often ambiguous
realities of policy outcomes. The definition of policy failure above, and key issues
that can be built-up from its foundations, is provided in the spirit of analysis as ‘art
and craft’.
First, the definition can help us cope with quasi-scientific, objectivist aspects of
failure (e.g. policies failing to meet their objectives, not being implemented as
intended) with the reality that political actors may have different views on that
McConnell 231

failure, depending on their core values and their view on the best means of achiev-
ing them through particular policy initiatives. Imagine a hypothetical example
where a government rescinds minimum statutory minimum wage levels, and puts
in place a new policy of non-intervention, leaving wage levels entirely to the laws of
supply and demand. The key goal is to ensure that wage levels are economically
sustainable for employers. One year later, against the wishes of employers, it back-
tracks are reintroduces statutory minimum wage requirements, albeit in a slightly
modified form. The reasons for the change are many, including the unpopularity of
the original policy and a looming national election. Did the government’s free
market policy fail? In all likelihood the government would have pragmatically
accept its policy as a failure, and the trade unions would also accept it as failure.
But it is likely that many employers would view outcomes as successful, because
they were able to pay to affordable ‘market’ rates. It is often the case that regardless
of the multiple facts and figures produced in relation to policy outcomes, differing
attributions of ‘failure’ (or success) will often depend on the extent to which a
policy is supported by an array of policy actors, which in turn depends on under-
lying values and what is considered to be the best means of achieving them. We
should not shy away from the realpolitik of differing views on policy outcomes but
the definition of failure given above can accommodate differing views. A policy
may abandoned and/or not achieve the goals that its proponents set out to achieve,
but we have the capacity analytically to separate outcomes from the extent or
support or otherwise for those outcomes.
Second, the definition goes beyond McConnell’s original definition by tempering
the implication that failure resides at the extreme end of a success–failure spectrum
where ‘failure’ is marked by an absolute non-achievement. In reality, even policies
that have become known as classic policy failures also produced small and even
quite modest successes. For example, the ill-fated Millennium Dome in London
attracted some six million visitors and an 84% satisfaction rating (King and Crewe,
2013: 123–124). By adding the words ‘even if it is successful in some minimal
respects’ we are able to grasp the reality that failure is rarely unequivocal and
absolute. Also, by introducing the words ‘does not fundamentally’ in relation to
the non-achievement of goals allows us to grasp that small pockets of success do
not detract from a policy failing to achieve goals. Of course commentators may
differ on what constitutes ‘fundamental’ but such differences are indicative of the
contested nature of failure and should be recognised rather than shunned as ‘unsci-
entific’. A similar issue arises with the matter of what constitutes circumstances
when ‘opposition is great and/or support is virtually non-existent’. There is no
scientific gauge that suddenly indicates ‘danger zones’ in terms of support and
indeed protagonists may still read the signs differently if there were. Rather, includ-
ing lack of support and opposition into a definition of policy failure allows us to
recognize that policy is not produced and implemented in a vacuum. Policies failing
fundamentally ‘on the ground’ may be kept alive by sufficiently strong coalitions of
support or terminated because of lack of support/opposition that makes continu-
ation politically unsustainable.
232 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

Third, the definition does not specifically mention the crucial issue of ‘time’, but
its ability to accommodate differing perspectives also allows it to cope with tem-
poral aspects of failure. The policy cycle/stages approach to understanding policy
has its weaknesses, but it nevertheless has value in helping us understand that
policy processes involve different activities such as problem definition, options
appraisal, decision making, implementation and evaluation. Assessments of poli-
cies may occur at any of these stages. Policy can fail ex ante in the process of policy
formation, for example by being withdrawn because of an assessment that it would
be too risky (Spain’s withdrawal of a bill that would have imposed stricter limits on
abortion), or defeated during legislative passage (Obama’s gun control legislation).
Or policy may fail at the crucial decision stage (Scottish First Minister Alex
Salmond’s failure to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on independence). Or
policy may fail in an ex-post evaluation of implementation outcomes (Royal
Commission into the home insulation scheme in Australia). Failure may manifest
differently at multiple stages throughout the policy cycle but the common denomin-
ator – returning to the definition – is that government is unable to do what it set out
to do (e.g. failure to produce legislation, failure to obtain approval for a decision,
failure to achieve outcomes) and fails to garner the requisite support. Policy pro-
cesses are in perpetual states of evaluation, not only often informal but also formal
through means such as risks assessments, cost–benefit analysis, scenario plans and
post-hoc evaluation exercises. The ‘failure’ of policy is highly temporal in the sense
that there are variations in terms of when the assessment is conducted in the policy
cycle and the time period (past, present and future) that is being evaluated.

Three forms of failure: Process, programmes and politics

Definitions of public policy abound, but that of Dye (2012: 12) encapsulates the
essence of most: ‘whatever governments choose to do or not do’. If we know what
governments ‘do’, we are well placed to understand ‘failures to do’. There are
certainly many ways of dissecting the roles of government. I argue here for three
types of ‘doing’. They are inextricably linked, but it is useful to separate them
analytically because they draw on different traditions within the policy sciences
and provide us with an understanding of different ways in which government
may fail to do what it intended. This in turn opens the door for us to develop
an understanding of some of the internal tensions of policy failure, with govern-
ments failing in some respects but succeeding in others. An important caveat is that
while I fully recognise the multi-faceted nature of modern governance systems and
the capacity of market-based, hierarchical and network governance (Bell and
Hindmoor, 2009), such complexity is beyond the scope of one short article which
should be seen as a first step on the road, rather than the end of a journey. Using
‘government’ as a reference point, therefore, Table 1 summarises usable criteria for
(outright) policy failure.
First, governments engage in processes to produce policy decisions. The policy
sciences since its origins in Lasswell and others in the aftermath of World War II,
Table 1. Degrees of policy failure across process, programme and politics

Criteria Tolerable failure Conflicted failure (Outright) Failure


Policy as process
1. Preserving goals and Policy goals and instruments Preferred goals and instruments Government unable to produce
policy instruments preserved, despite minor proving controversial and difficult its desired policy goals and
failure to achieve goals. to preserve. Some revisions instruments.
2. Securing legitimacy Some challenges to legitimacy Difficult and contested issues sur- Policy process illegitimate.
but of little or no lasting rounding policy legitimacy, with
significance. some potential to taint the policy
in the long-term.
3. Building sustainable Coalition intact, despite some Coalition intact, although strong No building of a sustainable
coalition signs of disagreement. signs of disagreement and some coalition.
potential for fragmentation.
4. Attracting support for Opposition to process is low Opposition to process and support Opposition to process is virtually
process level and outweighed by are equally balanced. universal and/or support is
support. virtually non-existent
Policy as programme
5. Implementation in line Implementation objectives Mixed results, with some successes, Despite minor progress towards
with objectives broadly achieved, despite but accompanied by unexpected implementation as intended,
minor failures and and controversial failings. programme is beset by
deviations. chronic failures, proving highly
controversial and very difficult
to defend.
6. Achieving desired Outcomes broadly achieved, Some successes, but the partial Some small outcomes achieved
outcomes despite minor shortfalls. achievement of intended out- as intended, but overwhelmed
comes is counterbalanced by by controversial and high
unwanted results, generating profile failure to produce
substantial controversy. results.

Table 1. Continued

Criteria Tolerable failure Conflicted failure (Outright) Failure

7. Benefitting target A few shortfalls and possibly Partial benefits realised, but not as Small benefits are accompanied
group(s) some anomalous cases, but widespread or deep as intended and overshadowed by damage
intended target group because of substantial failings. to the very group that was
broadly benefits. meant to benefit. Also likely
to generate high profile stor-
ies of unfairness and suffering.
8. Satisfying criteria highly Not quite the outcome Partial achievement of goals, but A few minor successes, but pla-
valued in policy domain desired, but despite flaws, accompanied by failures to gued by unwanted media
close enough to lay strong achieve, with possibility of high attention.
claim to fulfilling the profile examples.
9. Attracting support for Opposition to program aims, Opposition to program aims, values Opposition to program aims,
programme values and means of and means of achieving them is values and means of achieving
achieving them is stronger equally balanced with support for them outweighs small levels of
than anticipated, but easily same. support.
outweighed by support.
Policy as politics
10. Enhancing electoral Favourable to electoral pro- Policy obtains strong support and Despite small signs of benefit,
prospects/reputation spects and reputation opposition, working both for policy proves an overall
enhancement, despite against electoral prospects and electoral and reputational
minor setbacks. reputation in fairly equal liability.
11.Easing the business of Despite some problems in Policy proving controversial and Clear signs that the agenda and
governing agenda management, cap- taking up more political time and business of government
acity to govern is resources in its defence than was struggles to suppress a polit-
unperturbed. expected. ically difficult issue.
Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

Table 1. Continued

Criteria Tolerable failure Conflicted failure (Outright) Failure

12. Promotion of govern- Some refinements needed Direction of government very Entire trajectory of government
ment’s desired but broad trajectory broadly in line with goals, but in danger of being
trajectory unimpeded. clear signs that the policy has compromised.
promoted some rethinking,
especially behind the scenes.
13. Providing political Opposition to political bene- Opposition to political benefits for Opposition to political benefits
benefits for fits for government is government is equally balanced for government outweighs
government stronger than anticipated, with support for same. small levels of support.
but outweighed by
Note: Original table, substantially adapted from McConnell (2010a) Tables 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3; McConnell (2010b): Tables 1, 2 and McConnell (2012).
236 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

and with ambitions for a ‘better society’, have been preoccupied with policy
making processes, focusing on factors ranging from problem definition and con-
sultation, to options appraisal and policy design (see e.g. Lasswell, 1956, 1971;
Lerner and Lasswell, 1951) as well as deeper political issues on the issue of who
holds power in policy formation processes (Bachrach and Baratz, 1970; Cobb and
Ross, 1997). During the policy making process, therefore, governments may fail to
achieve their intended goal of gaining authoritative approval for a particular policy
initiative. Process failure can be dissected further in order to help us grasp key
aspects of such failures, as well as providing us with standard criteria for assess-
ment. Therefore, policy making process failure can comprise of policymakers to
varying degrees being unable to fashion the type of policy they had hoped for,
being considered illegitimate in terms of the processes used, being unable to build a
sustainable coalition of support and attracting widespread criticism (and little or
no support) for the process itself.
Second, governments produce policies (here I call them programmes, simply to
avoid clashing with the broader phenomenon of policy failure). Such programmes,
designed to address goals and underpinned by assumptions about appropriate
levels of government intervention in society, may range from persuasive policy
instruments such as public information campaigns, to financial subsidies, incentives
and penalties, as well as the regulation of behaviour (Hood and Margetts, 2007;
Howlett, 2010). Programme failure can be characterised by varying degrees of
failure to be implemented as intended, achieve desired outcomes, benefit target
groups, meet criteria which are highly valued in that policy domain (e.g. efficiency
in public budgeting) and attract opposition to, and attract little or no support, for
either the policy goals and/or the means of achieving them.
Third, governments ‘do’ politics, because amid the multiple conflicts in society
over the making, shaping and enacting of public policies, they play powerful roles
in inter alia shaping debates, managing conflicts, attending to the business of gov-
erning and establishing visions. Public policies can shape and be shaped by politics,
from the careerism of public officials to the pursuit of ideologies. Governments,
therefore, can fail to achieve their intended political outcomes, with impacts includ-
ing reputational damage, out of control agendas, damage to core governance
values and opposition to any small political benefits that may remain.
Although the process, programmatic and political aspects of policies are inex-
tricably linked, it is useful to separate them analytically because doing so helps
develope our understanding of some of the internal tensions of policy failure, with
governments failing in some respects but not others. To explore this issue further,
we need to explore the relationship between success and failure.

Degrees of failure
We know already that success is not ‘all or nothing’. Failure can occur in some of
the three realms mentioned above but not others and/or can be a matter of degree,
as well as being interspersed with success(es). We cannot capture such complex and
McConnell 237

intertwined phenomenon in scientific formula, given the role of judgement and

interpretation in policy analysis (Wildavsky, 1987). However, Table 1 specifically
identifies criteria (across the process, programme and political dimensions) to help
us think about degrees of failure and their relationship to success. It is a refinement
and adaption of the earlier McConnell (2010a, 2010b) framework and is more
parsimonious in its categories (three sets of outcomes rather than five). I have
also supplemented the original categories with ‘failure’ terminology. Doing so
helps us grasps the real politick of failure, that some failures are survivable and
others not, while failure in some realms may actually be a consequence of success in
others. We can conceive of:

Tolerable Failure (¼Resilient Success): Failure is tolerable when it does not funda-
mentally impede the attainment of goals that proponents set out to achieve, and
opposition is small and/or criticism is virtually non-existent. In essence, tolerable
failures are marginal features – a politically realistic ‘second best’ – of dominant
and resilient successful outcomes.

Conflicted Failure (¼Conflicted Success): Failures to achieve goals are fairly evenly
matched with attainment of goals, with strong criticism and strong defence in roughly
equal measure. In essence, conflicted failures are dogged by periodic controversy that
is never quite enough to act as a fatal blow to the policy, but insufficient to seriously
damage its defenders.

(Outright) Failure (¼Marginal Success): A policy fails, even if it is successful in some

minimal respects, if it does not fundamentally achieve the goals that proponents set
out to achieve, and opposition is great and/or support is virtually non-existent. In
essence, failures outweigh success and the policy is a political liability.

As indicated by the ‘art and craft’ argument, placing aspect of failure in these
categories should be considered something of an intellectual mapping exercise
involving judgement in order to get a sense of the forms, strengths and intercon-
nections of failure. Very few policies will fit neatly into the same category but the
weighing up what factors are/are not important, is part of the ‘art and craft’ of

Tensions between failures

There will always be unique configurations and elements of apparent randomness,
but in the disciplines of political science and policy analysis, some of the most
studied phenomena (such electoral preferences, path dependency, incremental
policy change) concern patterns of behaviour, often stable over time. It would
not be particularly surprising to find patterns of policy failure or tensions between
them. As an analytical starting point, three such patterns can be flagged. All
involve policy makers trading off different types of failure over time (prospective,
238 Public Policy and Administration 30(3–4)

present and retrospective) and at times preparing to ‘risk’ or tolerate one form of
failure (or its possibility) in pursuit of ‘success’ in another realm of policy (Althaus,

Process success vs. programme/political failure. Government succeeds in the policy

making phase of the policy cycle by getting authoritative approval for the decision
or decisions it sought, but the very means of doing so (such as rushing a bill
through a legislature, ignoring consultation feedback about potential implementa-
tion problems, marshalling evidence to legitimise the proposed policy) can create
risks – which may come to fruition, that the programme fails in the implementation
stage to achieve its goals, resulting in political backlash which proves unmanage-
able. Peace agreements are an example. Only about 50% survive five years and
more, because the very circumstances that are conducive to compromise (lack of
detail, ambiguity, vague aspirations) are the stuff of implementation nightmares
and create huge space for each faction to withdraw if they feel politically and
militarily vulnerable in comparison to the other (Bekoe, 2008).

Political success vs. programme failure. Colloquially, this would refer to ‘good politics
but bad policy’. For example, government may succeed in perpetuating its govern-
ance ideas by initiating policy with a high placebo content, demonstrating that a
policy is in place to tackle a particular ‘wicked problem’, but which fails to actually
deliver on programme goals because of the complexity and intractability of prob-
lems with multiple individual, institutional and societal causes. Sharman (2011) in
his study of AML policies demonstrates precisely this issue, arguing that a diffusion
of westernised norms and policies in AML have spread rapidly, not because they
solve the problems of criminals abusing financial systems, but because weaker,
developing nations must appear modern and progressive in the face of inter-
national donor communities, the World Bank and the IMF. The small island of
Naura (pop. 11,000) has adopted state-of-the-art AML policies, despite having no
financial sector and no banks!

Programme success vs. political failure. Government succeeds in implementing unpopu-

lar programme measures, but leads to political failure. Austerity measures such as
those in Greece, Spain and Ireland are a classic example, implemented with efficiency
but producing damage to governments’ key political success aspirations, e.g. reputa-
tional protection, control of policy agendas and promotion of governance ideas.

Despite the standard assumptions of media headlines and much academic analysis,
policy failures do not come neatly packaged with clear definitions. Policy failures
are intensely political because of conflict over whether a particular set of policy
outcomes constitutes failure, and what (if anything) caused failure in the first place.
The very messiness and ambiguities of policy failure create space for the
McConnell 239

construction of often wildly different narratives throughout different stages of the

policy cycle. Yet this does not mean to say that failures are purely a matter of
perception. While it is important to recognise that disentangling ‘objective’ aspects
of failure from ‘constructed’ factors, speaks to broader and ongoing debates at the
heart of social and political sciences, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion the ‘real’
factors may also be at work in defining policy failure, such as promises that simply
did not happen. Such matters cannot be resolved in one short paper, or perhaps not
at all in the plural discipline of political science with multiple and legitimate
assumptions and methodologies. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the framework
and arguments presented in this article are useful primers to help analysts navigate
the mysterious and unsteady ‘maze’ policy failure.
In this spirit I offer some pointers. Detailed examination of individual cases is
clearly the way forward from here. The framework presented in this article can be
used to map the characteristics of different policy outcomes. This exercise helps us
dig deeper into single and multiple cases on issues such as causes, blame, decision
making, learning and evaluation.
In terms of individual cases, the framework helps divide aspects of failure
into meaningful analytical categories (process, programme, political) as well as
degrees of failure (outright, conflicted, tolerable) that help provide the basis for
further examination of dynamics. Questions could include: Did conflicted process
failure (where government modified many of its original goals) lead to outright
programme failure? Or why did outright programme failure lead only to tolerable
political failure?
In terms of multiple cases, the framework allows for structured comparison.
Questions could include: why did two ‘most similar’ programme failures lead to
outright political failure in one case but only tolerable political failure in another?
Or why did two ‘most different’ programme failures (outright and tolerable) both
lead to similar political failure (ministerial resignation)?
Comparison over time is possible, within and across sectors. For example, why
in policy sector X do different policy making processes with varying degree of
failure throughout (modification to government goals, legitimacy of the process),
always produce conflicted programme failure?
There are innumerable possibilities for applying the framework but an import-
ant point is that while failures pervade all policy sectors, they vary in type, mag-
nitude and impact. Studying failure, therefore, is not simply a matter of studying
outright failure. Studying failure through further empirical work means we need to
find an analytical place for marginal and outright failures alike, across all aspects of
what government chooses to do (or not to do). Only by doing so we can move
further beyond the assumption that failure is a unitary, self-evident phenomenon
that either does or doesn’t exist.

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