Revisiting the study of policy failures

Mark Bovens & Paul ‘t Hart – Journal of European Public Policy

What is a policy success? What is a policy failure? It feels as though that ought to be straightforward question, but the answer looks more uncertain the more closely we look. There is a gung ho – but still very valuable – approach of finding fairly big and fairly obvious blunders, but that’s a way of avoiding the question, rather than answering it.

This paper takes a more reflective approach, distinguishing between ‘programmatic’ and ‘political’ success and failure, arguing that neither determines the other and that the subject attract analytical confusion as much as clarity. None of that may sound helpful to the jobbing policymaker, struggling to find practically and politically effective solutions to complicated problems, but there is a clear conclusion (even though, perhaps in parallel with some of the policies used as examples, it is not entirely clear how the conclusion follows from the evidence): that open policy making is better than closed, that the messiness of democratic challenge is more effective than the apparent virtues of pure analytical precision.

But it also follows that policy failure is a political construct, as much as it is anything:

there is no ‘just world’ of policy assessment in which reputation naturally reflects performance. The nexus between the two is constructed, negotiated and therefore contingent, and often variable over time

It further follows, perhaps, that that jobbing policymaker needs have a political sensibility well beyond what a more managerialist approach might think necessary, being ready to recognise and operate in ‘the world of impressions: lived experiences, stories, frames, counter-frames, heroes and villains’.

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