Why do public policies fail? Categorizing the challenges

written by Matt Andrews

Governments—and other public policy organizations—undertake many different tasks, implementing a diverse set of policies and projects. Many of these policies and projects are not considered successful. My recent blog post noted that failure occurs more often than anyone would likely consider optimal.

There are many reasons for policy failure, and my own research on this topic is well underway: I have been analyzing a sample of fifty case studies of policy failures to identify reasons for failure and will be discussing findings in a working paper coming soon.  As I work, I am always trying to learn from the thoughts and analysis of others, and to find good teaching materials to use in engaging executives on the topic (materials that are easy to read, and offer pragmatic views that have some evidentiary backing in the broader literature).

Last year I ran into an interesting article that falls into this category, by a Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) team in Switzerland. It is titled, “Are Public Projects Doomed to Failure From the Start?” and offers an interesting set of categories to work with in thinking about why public policies fail. Categorization is one of the hardest things to do in analyzing case evidence, and I think this is as helpful as any I have seen. It is shown in this visual (my rendition of their work) to propose three macro-issues affecting policy success and failure, with 9 more detailed factors in these areas. I wonder what you think of these? 

Screen Shot 2019-03-07 at 4.54.43 PM

Let’s take the first macro-issue methods and processes: the PWC team note that policies and projects often flounder because “the methods for project management are not appropriately applied or adhered to” and “[u]sually no clear, detailed definition of the strategic objective or business case is available; in particular, there is no definition of clear and robust success criteria.”

I’ve seen both challenges in many contexts and the literature certainly speaks to both.[1]

On the second one of stakeholder and leadership issues, they comment: “A lack of top-management support is regularly given as a reason for failure in public projects” and “[t]he difference between explicit and implicit expectations in terms of project output and intangible outcome can be considerable … [which] leads to disappointed stakeholders and the labelling of the project as a failure” and “There is a lack of incentive for project success … [given that] [s]uccessful completion results in fewer personnel and a budget reduced by the expected efficiency savings, and the manager being expected to deal with further IT projects…[but in the case of failure]…personnel and the budget remain as before, and the manager will not have to manage further IT projects.”

Again, these thoughts ring true to me and are commonly discussed in the literature, often in references to ‘political will’, ‘leadership’, ‘organizational or stakeholder resistance’, and more.[2]

In discussing the third macro-issue of complexity and uncertainty, the authors argue that “A major challenge in public projects … are political, organisational and technical complexities that can render a project unmanageable.” Referring to political complexity in particular, they note that “Political decision-makers and senior civil servants often have misconceptions about the capabilities and boundaries of project management. Project deadlines are often set on the basis of political debate rather than a realistic planning effort. Political agendas frequently mean there is an unwillingness to change or end projects that no longer fit the business case.” In respect of organizational complexity, they comment that, “Often many different independent organisations have to (i.e. have to be forced to) cooperate on public projects, and the organisational and procedural changes necessary for a project to succeed often meet with major resistance in the organisations affected.” In discussing technical complexities, they suggest that “a heterogeneous landscape within and between public organisations means that interfaces and data formats have to meet additional requirements, sometimes preventing easy and fast solutions.”

Once again, my experience echoes these thoughts, and the recent focus on complexity in international development shows that others are thinking about this too.[3]

The PWC authors note that these complexities feed imbalances in policy initiatives and organizations: “The inherent complexities can very easily lead a project to a state where proper management and governance are no longer possible and the intended objectives can no longer be achieved within the given constraints.” The authors also argue that complexities promote uncertainty, which introduces additional challenges, including :

“Uncertainty is a negative consequence of project complexity. It can be related to the duration of a task, the cost of a deliverable, or any dimension of any component of the project system. If there is uncertainty with respect of a single parameter, this uncertainty can be transmitted to neighbouring parameters and spread through the entire system…

In conditions of uncertainty, normal behaviour will be (overly) optimistic regarding the iron triangle of cost, quality and time. This includes a tendency to underestimate obstacles and expected problems. Precisely this behaviour can be observed among public-project sponsors and stakeholders. This results in disappointed stakeholders and the impression of failure even though the project has been delivered with near-optimum results.”

Interesting again, and resonant with my experience.

What do you think of this kind of categorization of ‘reasons for failure’ in public policy interventions? What is missing? What could be given more depth?

Visit the Implementing Public Policy course website to learn more.


[1] On the issue of what the PWC team calls ‘Methods’, for instance, Frank Fukuyama at Stanford University has been emphasizing the lack of effective teaching about implementation in public policy schools (see his article last year).  Additionally, recent work on the issue of what the PWC team call ‘Strategic Alignment’ discusses difficulties of determining what success and failure actually mean in policy interventions. See the following: McConnell, A., 2015. What is policy failure? A primer to help navigate the maze. Public Policy and Administration30(3-4), pp.221-242; Peters, B.G., 2015. State failure, governance failure and policy failure: Exploring the linkages. Public Policy and Administration30(3-4), pp.261-276; Damoah, I.S. and Akwei, C., 2017. Government project failure in Ghana: a multidimensional approach. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business10(1), pp.32-59.

[2] Some recent studies I have enjoyed that reference such issues include the following: Berkowitz, D. and Krause, G.A., 2018. How bureaucratic leadership shapes policy outcomes: partisan politics and affluent citizens’ incomes in the American states. Journal of Public Policy, pp.1-24; Grindle, M.S., 2017. Politics and policy implementation in the Third World (Vol. 4880). Princeton University Press; Huang, T.T., Cawley, J.H., Ashe, M., Costa, S.A., Frerichs, L.M., Zwicker, L., Rivera, J.A., Levy, D., Hammond, R.A., Lambert, E.V. and Kumanyika, S.K., 2015. Mobilisation of public support for policy actions to prevent obesity. The Lancet385(9985), pp.2422-2431; Milat, A.J., Bauman, A. and Redman, S., 2015. Narrative review of models and success factors for scaling up public health interventions. Implementation Science10(1), p.113; and Wu, X., Ramesh, M. and Howlett, M., 2015. Policy capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities. Policy and Society34(3-4), pp.165-171.

[3] Commentators like Duncan Green have been discussing complexity for years in this domain. See the following blog from 2013, for instance: and here is an interesting article from 2015 by the Overseas Development Institute.

 

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