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Article May 16th, 2017

When impact falls short: learning the lessons of policy 'failure'

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We often hear in motivational speeches, at schools and in conferences around the world that “we learn more from failures than from success”. There are also nice quotes about failing that are often repeated: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” (Henry Ford) or “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill).

Learning from failures is, however, more easily said than done. If you look around at textbooks, if you look at the media, or if you remember your classes at university, how many times can you recall yourself studying cases of failure? Speaking for ourselves, we cannot recall a single one.

But if we think about public policies that affect our daily lives, nearly everyone can recall at least one that did not achieve its objectives. A road that was planned but not built, a law that was approved in parliament but could not be implemented and had to be withdrawn, among many others.

New 'failure' case studies on the Observatory

At the Centre for Public Impact we believe there is much to learn from failures and that's why we have specifically looked across sectors and around the world for policies that failed to achieve their initial goals. We have analysed each of them using our Public Impact Fundamentals to understand the main reasons why they were unable to achieve their planned impact. Beyond understanding them, we have transformed them into case studies as part of our Public Impact Observatory - a free to use and available to all repository of case studies of public policies. You can find there, for example, an analysis of Obamacare in the US, an initiative to restructure land tenure in Cambodia, the attempt to introduce a carbon tax in Australia, and failed initiatives to reduce malnutrition in Zimbabwe, among many others.

It is important to stress that we are not prescriptive about the definition of “failure”. We do not even call them “failures” on the Observatory. We just highlight the fact that, in those cases, the outcomes fell short of the initially stated objectives. We believe that it is less important to ascribe success or failure than to understand what prevented initiatives from fully achieving their goals.

At the Observatory, using our Fundamentals framework, we analyse each case study according to the three fundamental aspects that we identified as crucial to improved public impact: Legitimacy, Policy and Action. Legitimacy - the underlying support for a policy and the attempts to achieve it; Policy - the design quality of policies intended to achieve impact; and Action - the translation of policies into real-world effect.

The detailed analysis focuses on the nine constituent elements of our framework - within each of the three fundamentals there are three supporting elements. For all initiatives, based on the Fundamentals rubric, each element is given a score on a four-point scale ranging from weak to strong, with empirical evidence of why we attribute each of the grades.

But why do governments fail?

No government sets out to fail. Around the world, policies are designed to make a difference and achieve a positive impact. And yet, as our stories demonstrate, policymakers often struggle to turn what sounds like a good idea on paper, to real-life progress. Why is this the case?

Firstly, there is no magic bullet. Turning an idea into impact is something far easier to write, than to do. The sheer complexities of life in government - in both departmental headquarters and the frontline - means that there is no simple formula suitable for a cut and paste. During the course of our work, we have spoken to practitioners and academics, frontline workers and department heads, and a strong consensus quickly emerged that governments need to be able to adapt. Contexts, backgrounds, systems and cultures all differ - something that policymakers need to be able to recognise and respond to in order to achieve their objectives.

Secondly, there is no agreement about what exactly “success” is. This means different things to different people and different organisations. Similarly, the task facing policymakers is made harder due to mixed opinions about precisely what influences the impact of government initiatives, as well as what people mean by “public impact”.

Leveraging the Observatory

Born around six months ago, our Observatory is growing every week and already combines, in one place, more than 250 stories of public impact, good and bad, excellent and disappointing. We hope that by incorporating “failure case studies”, the Observatory will prove to be an even more useful resource for anyone interested in the study of public impact and how governments can improve their performance.

Our 'failure' case studies:


Written by:

Claudia Irigoyen Research Associate
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Jorge Hargrave Director, Latin America
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