Policy Failure

  • Mauricio Olavarría-GambiEmail author
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3182-2



The inability of a public policy to achieve its goals, to get results that benefit – or at least do not harm – the population to which it should serve, to materialize the values and purposes promoted by its proponents, to give legitimity to the government, and to generate greater efficiency and/or effectiveness compared to other public policies that could have been implemented to cope with the same problem.


Latin America and the Caribbean


The expression of the failure of public policies is conceptually complex, because it has been used in an unsystematic and elastic manner to refer to different kinds of situations, results, consequences, and with some frequency, as an argument in political confrontation with the purpose of achieving support for a given cause or delegitimizing the initiatives of opponents (Zittoun 2015).

Furthermore, a public policy may have failed in some aspect or area in which it participates, but not necessarily in others or in all the areas in which it operates. That happens because public problems are multidimensional and because a public policy is rarely so focused that it deals with only one facet of the problem. For example, the Transantiago, the public passenger transport system implemented in the city of Santiago, Chile, in 2007, which was characterized by The Economist (2008) as “a model of how not to reform public transport,” has achieved some positive results, such as the implementation of a prepayment card that incorporates a technological device which in contact with a collecting machine installed in each bus charges the cost of the ticket. This has led to a substantial decrease of assaults to buses in the city’s peripheral zones and to the drivers concentrating on driving the bus, which in turn has meant a large decrease in the rate of accidents involving public transport buses.

On the other hand, besides defining the idea of public policy failure, a highly significant issue is to be able to generate an analytical framework that allows an integral understanding of the situations that get to be characterized as public policy faults or failures. Therefore, this kind of analysis must answer three intrinsically related questions: (i) When can a public policy be considered to have failed? (ii) What situations or circumstances determined or were key aspects in generating the failure? and (iii) What type of lessons can be gotten from a case of a failed public policy?

Conceptual Issues

On the Identification of a Failed Policy

The academic literature usually treats the notion of fault as the reverse of success of a public policy (see, for example, McConnell 2010a, b; Baldwin 2000; Boyne 2003; Marsh and McConnel 2010; Newman and Head 2015). So a successful policy is considered to be one that achieves the established objectives, gets favorable results, and respects the values and orientations of the governments that implemented them. On the other hand, a public policy is seen as a failure when it does not achieve the objectives that were set, when it affects negatively the population that it was meant to benefit, when it is ineffective, inefficient, or its costs are excessive compared to another intervention that could have been implemented to deal with the problem, and/or when it generates negative political consequences – reputational and/or electoral – in its promoters and implementers. McConnel (2010a: 357) states that “Program failures, in essence, not only fail to accomplish what they were intended to do but can also threaten the position of politicians and parties that sponsor failed programs.”

Considering the multidimensionality of problems approached by the public policies, the characterization of failure must therefore be made in reference to those aspects, realms, or areas in which the already mentioned negative effects are produced. Therefore, summarizing, a public policy may be considered as a failure when in the analyzed aspect, realm, or area it is incapable of achieving its objectives, obtaining favorable results, being effective in its implementation, providing legitimacy to its proponents, and/or, furthermore, harming the welfare of the objective population to which it should benefit.

On What Leads to the Failure of Public Policy

Although this characterization and brief definition allows identifying when a public policy can be considered as a failure – or the concrete realm to which the analysis refers – the next step in an integral analytic perspective is to identify the situations and/or circumstances that would have led to unleash the fault. Consequently, the issue that must be dealt with at this stage is, following Peters (2015), whether the fault is more related to the design of the public policy, to its implementation, or to the governance system in which the policy process is embedded.

The failures associated with the policy design refer to the fact that there has been a deficient conceptualization and understanding of the public problem that must be approached, the setting of goals, the selection of instruments, the specification of activities, tasks, and/or the assignment of executors. This type of deficiencies may lead to not achieving the assigned objectives, generating unfavorable results, loss of welfare of the beneficiaries of the public policy, and/or producing negative political consequences to their promoters.

The failure associated with implementation, on the other hand, would be located in the complex network of interactions that link persons and organizations with the objective of executing a set of activities that have been established with the purpose of achieving the objective assigned to the public policy. According to Dimitrakopoulos and Richardson (2001: 336), implementation refers to “the complex process of putting a policy into practice by a variety of mechanisms and procedures involving a wide and diverse range of actors.” On this point, it should be recalled that “a public policy can be seen as a hypothesis on how a given goal, assigned to a State intervention, can be achieved if a given group of activities, deduced from a set of knowledge that is considered valid, is put in operation” (Olavarría 2016: 3).

Furthermore, it also must be recognized that the limit between failures associated with the design and those associated with the implementation is dim, and recurrently, impossible to clarify. This happens because it is not possible to analyze the implementation of a public policy without referring to its design. Focusing on the analysis of the implementation, Pressman and Wildavsky (1984: xxv) argue that “the separation of public policy design from its implementation is fatal (and that) … though we can isolate policy and implementation for separate discussion, the purpose of our analysis is to bring them into closer correspondence with one another.”

Thus, implementation is seen associated with the governance system in which the public policy is inserted and in which are established the cooperation and coordination mechanisms of the set of actors – organizational and individual – that take part in the public policy process. The perspective of the governance stimulates the development of an integral vision of the system that harbors the policy, because it makes it possible to see how the design, the organizational performance, and the interorganizational arrangements interact and converge to produce the results observed in the implementation of the public policy.

Therefore, the fault in the implementation would be the consequence of a governance fault, which involves the ability to monitor what is happening in the system, direct the organizations that take part in the implementation toward the established goals, intervene when deviations are detected, and close the gap that exists between the ideal of the public policy and the reality of the actions of individual autonomous organizations (Van der Steen et al. 2015), which the action performed by organizations involved in the implementation generate stimuli and feedback that are taken into account as supplies by other organizations, creating a pattern that magnifies the original effect.

The fault associated with the implementation would therefore be the consequence of an inability of the system in charge of putting in practice the policy, to direct and articulate the actions of the executing agencies needed to achieve the established goals.

On the Lessons from a Failed Policy

The third step is to identify the lessons that may be obtained from a policy failure. Four types of lessons can be gotten from that analysis.

The learning on the problem that will be approached by a public policy implies deepening the knowledge on the situation which is considered problematic, the causal links that would be producing it, and the interrelation and effects that it would have with and on other situations, as well as specifying the scopes and goals that the public policy would have on the problem which will be intervened.

The technical learning refers to the relation between the instruments applied and the established goals, to the availability of the information and data needed for designing the policy and monitoring the implementation, and to the effectiveness of the policy management model.

The institutional learning is related to the lessons left by the failed policy in terms of practical operation and application of the set of rules and norms that govern the design and implementation of the policy, the organizational designs and performances, the established interorganizational arrangements, the size of the human work teams, as well as the abilities and competencies required to carry out the intervention established by the public policy.

The political learning refers to the knowledge left by experience on how to maneuver in the power networks to get political support for the public policy initiative, how to neutralize the criticisms and oppositions, how to prevent proponents, promoters, and supporters to abandon the initiative, how to communicate more effectively the scope, goals, and operation of the policy to larger audiences, how the population to which it is addressed would benefit, and also how to be prepared to react promptly when a crisis occurs.

Therefore, the study of the lessons left by a case of public policy failure is a multifaceted analysis that involves aspects relative to the social construction of the problem itself approached by the public policy, technical aspects, political consequences, and on the distribution of power, institutional and organizational aspects that have had an incidence on the results, and effects generated by the public policy.

Concluding Remarks

The development of an integral analytic perspective of a policy failure leads to the need of approaching three interrelated issues: when can a policy be considered to have failed, what situations or circumstances led to the fault to take place, and what lessons can be obtained from the experience.

The identification of the failure of a public policy is related to its inability to achieve the objectives that were established, with adverse results and impacts, with negative political effects for its promoters, and harm to the welfare of the population it was meant to benefit. The situations and circumstances that lead to the failure of the intervention can be located in the design or in the governance system that hosts the policy and from which it is managed. The learning will make reference to the problem itself that is approached by the policy, to the technical, institutional, and organizational aspects involved, and to the management system of the public policy.

This entry has benefited from the work done by the author in the article “Policy Failure Revisited: Conceptual Implications From the Chilean Case of Transantiago”, Administration & Society, 2018, https://doi.org.10.1177/0095399718786878


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidad de Santiago de ChileSantiagoChile