Blog Policy

Do policy errors contribute to policy learning?

Policy Error
What is a policy error and what is the use of it in contribution towards policy learning? I explore the ways in which a policy error can be used.


Throughout the course of this answer to the question we propose to integrate in the framework utilised within (Bovens, Hart and Peters, 2001). This approach integrates an understanding of policy success having two primary dimensions and analyse the success as being dependent on these dimensions, the first being “programmatic, ‘the effectiveness, efficiency and resilience of the specific policies being evaluated” and the second being “ political, ‘the way policies and policy makers become evaluated in the political arena’”. This paper will also seek to explore the primary ways in which policy errors can be evaluated alongside seeking to develop an understanding supported by empirical evidence of the approaches used to develop policy learnings from examples of policy failures.

Partisanship in measuring policy success or failure

A key concern in the evaluation of whether a policy is a success or failure is understanding the framing and indeed the framer of whether a policy is deemed successful or as having failed to achieve the preferred policy outcomes, we can see this level of partisanship within work conducted by (Stone, 2002), (Fischer, 2003). The nature of policy and the public face of it means that evaluations of whether we can understand whether a policy is successful or not is by evaluating the source of the evaluation, and to understand whether they set out to conduct an impartial and fair assessment of whether a policy failed to meet it’s stated objectives. This affords us the opportunity in gaining an understanding of the motivations behind proclamations of its success or failure. Indeed building on the work of (McConnell, 2010) we can use the analysis of policy success or failure and the narratives surrounding it are contingent where “The policy sciences lack an overarching heuristic framework which would allow analysts to approach the multiple outcomes of policies in ways that move beyond the often crude, binary rhetoric of success and failure”. It is with this in mind that we will seek to evaluate and address the question of whether a policy failure can be deemed to have influenced future policy learning, and indeed to contextualise what policy failures encompass and delve into the lack of fluidity with regards to analysing success or failure.

We will seek to evaluate policy success and failure, and indeed it’s impact on policy learning with a view to interpreting or contextualising the role in which the political process has within its influence on the policy making process. For this we will seek to utilise the framework as proposed within (Fischer, 1995), specifically developing an understanding of the role of politicians within the policy making process.

Indeed this framing can be summarised by that which is outlined in (McConnell, 2010) with regards to understanding the role of policy success on the political prospects of particular parties or actors, however the understanding that programs should “at least be portrayed as in the public interest, as opposed to that of a party’s electoral prospects, elite interests or individual career ambitions” is an important understanding for the ways in which partisan framing can have ulterior motives in the framing of policy success or failure, specifically with regards to an understanding of proclamations of resounding policy successes.

This has has a further impact on policy learning, due to a public perception of success being garnered around a policy that is achieving its objective but in which is broadly framed as being a policy failure, this can lead to changes being made to a policy where none is for example required, this is why it’s important for policies to be developed with a clear and communicable measurement for achievement of desired policy outcomes.

We can see as outlined within (McConnell, 2015) that there is a need for an interpretation of power structures within society and specifically within the political sphere that can view through the lens and develop an ulterior evaluation of a policy specifically where“‘failure’ is a construction by those whose social power allows them to articulate and succeed in securing a dominant failure narrative” – this understanding of narratives of failure, where none may indeed exist can be seen as typified within (Hinterleitner, 2017) where the case of ‘Carlos’ in Switzerland, a youth offender gained national media attention and led to a ‘blame game’ by policy makers with regards to how best to treat and deal with such cases, however whilst there was a broad consensus that such treatment was too expensive it was in fact more cost-effective than the alternative (and more traditional approach to dealing with youth offenders) alongside achieving the aims of such a policy, by reducing the risk of recidivism.Such cases seek to illustrate that while there can be consensus on a policy that has ‘failed’ with regards to a political understanding of a policy, it can in fact be deemed to be successful with the use of other measures of policy evaluation. It also serves to highlight the role of dominant social actors in framing a policy as a failure wherein no such policy failure can be deemed to exist with regards to an impartial view of achieving the policy objective of reducing recidivism rates of youth offenders.

This failure narrative can indeed gain creedence within the political sphere, but when it comes to where policy learning can have the greatest impact as outlined by both (Hall, 1993), and (Heclo, 1973) we can see that much of the social learning which may occur can take place within epistemic communities, alongside amongst the bureaucracies, with Heclo going as far to identify these groups as amongst the most consistently important when it comes to analysing where policy learning has the most importance.

We can see this as outlined in the recent work conducted by (Craft, 2017) where we could see that an understanding of policy failure was increasingly being conducted before ex-post stage of evaluation, which mostly observes claims, counterclaims and framing as a measurement of policy success or failure, instead as was observed within the Canadian system there was an integration of advisers who worked “hand in glove” with their ministers, colleagues other officials and relevant stakeholders. The express aim of this was to inform the policy agenda and to seek to avoid failure with regards to policy objectives. This privileged position of advisers can act as an insight into the ways in which partisan insiders can inform and seek to evaluate the likelihood of policy success of failure.

Addressing and amending shortcomings (incremental approaches)

When it comes to leveraging policy failures towards a constructive end we can seek to evaluate policy development as a process this would be in line with the approach understood within (Lindblom, 1959), and can be seen as a process which is typically understood to follow through a cycle (although there are competing understandings of the ways in which to interpret the policy cycle).

When evaluating a process it can be understood that an evaluation of failures is indeed part of a cycle, specifically with regards to the policy cycle as outlined by (Howlett, 2012). This understanding of policy failure as a constituent part of a policy cycle can lend itself to an evaluation of integrating in the work of (Lindblom, 1959). Specifically the approach of incrementalism, that views the ways in which “Democracies change their policies almost entirely through incremental adjustments. Policy does not move in leaps and bounds.“, this can also be understood by the ways in which Lindblom proposes an understanding of the ways in which political actors differ in interpretations or definitions of problems, but largely agree on addressing a larger problem.

The example provided is one in which full employment is seen as an area in which both parties in the U.S agree upon, but due to definitional differences there can be policies which may be understood as failures by one side, but by the other due to a variation in the definition used is not viewed within the same paradigm, this is where we see the development of policy failures leading to incremental change through policy learning.

Indeed when we evaluate the understanding of policy success as outlined within (McConnell, 2010), which views policy success as “A policy is successful if it achieves the goals that proponents set out to achieve and attracts no criticism of any significance and/ or support is virtually universal.“, indeed the framing required for policies to be deemed successful is an ideal, but in many instances an unattainable ideal, we can see in a number of examples of policy evolution in practice that policy develops through failure, we can see this within the context of Social Justice Ireland’s approach to the failure within Irish housing policy, due to the failure to reach a set amount of housing units developed within Ireland (Social Justice Ireland, 2017) This is a clear example of the framing challenges inherent within ‘Failures’ of policy, because while Social Justice Ireland are seeking to frame current social housing units development as a failure this is according to criteria that they seek to use to develop their frame based on criteria which may not be a basis for policy success by the Irish Government (who may for example be privy to further information and data which outlines what policy is likely to be successful/achievable).

Table 1 in (McConnell, 2010)  provides a framework for development of an understanding of the ways in which policies can be implemented and the ways in which they can be measured, it would be the position of this paper to understand that although the table provides a good insight, that sometimes there is a non-linear relationship with regards to policy development, with an abject failure in one area providing a more nuanced or different approach to be utilised. Indeed we can see the political realm as impinging upon this framework with a change in government for example signalling a broader change in policies to be utilised in achieving a particular policy outcome.

Learning from policy failures

Interpreting the work of (Dunlop, 2017), is an important component of addressing the question of whether policy failures do in fact contribute to or can be utilised in policy learning. Of particular note is the ways in which we can understand policy learning, by going beyond a simple linear progressive vision of policy learning where policies gradually improve over time, we can also observe policy failures which can lead to a negatively reinforcing series of actions that could be understood as policy learning. The example provided is the case of Bovine Tuberculosis in the UK and how we seen consistent policy failures, where we would expect to see policy learning improve the quality of the policy interventions but which failed to materialise in depth.

Indeed (Dunlop, 2017) states that much of the work with regards to policy development is focused on how to ensure policy is successful and less so on the development of policy that is focused on not failing, and in line with an evolutionary understanding of policy development is concurrent with the understanding of policy failure as a constituent component (albeit not the only component) of the incremental approach to policy making as proposed by (Lindblom, 1959)

In (Hall, 1993) paper on social learning, we can see that the understanding of the role social learning plays in influencing macro-economic policy making, in particular Hall affords particular creedence to ‘anomalies’ or more broadly, outcomes that remain at odds with those predicted by the theoretical tenets of the operative paradigm, alongside the role of policy failures in impacting upon the approach to move away from keynesian macroeconomic policies to a more monetarist approach which was more prominent in British macro-economic policy during the 1980’s onwards. The understanding that policy ‘legacies’ can have a greater impact on the direction of future policy is also outlined within the work of  (Weir, Orloff, Skocpol, 1988).

Methods of impartial policy evaluation

Indeed a key component of the failure to provide a definitive answer to the question is due to the fluidity involved in approaching the question, when one speaks of policy failure or policy success, the question must be asked in line with the approach outlined within (McConnell, 2010), namely who is evaluating whether it has been a success or failure, to what degree is it a success or failure and how can it impact on policy learning going forward.

This depth, is outlined by (McConnell, 2010) who states that “When analysts assess the success or otherwise of a particular policy, they can invoke different criteria that lead to different conclusions.” indeed to provide a fair analysis of a particular policy intervention it is important to take account of the metrics of success used across the various stakeholders, as a success for politicians may not be a success for researchers interested in addressing the area the policy intervention sought to address.

We can also see the importance of identifying impartial policy evaluation by taking the approach outlined within (Bovens and Hart, 2016) that there is an importance to taking research policy findings seriously and seeking practical real-world applications of policy failures into tangible and valuable real-world understandings of policy learnings. This can very much cut to the crux of policy failure impacting upon policy learning, by ensuring that big policy failures contribute to big policy learning and indeed an avoidance of such failures in the future (assuming we can identify and evaluate failures impartially).

Measuring policy success / failure

The challenge inherent within the measurement of policy success or failure is indeed best approached within (McConnell, 2015), whereupon the author outlines the challenges in evaluating policy failures: “Surprisingly, there is a relative paucity of writings on policy failure. Perhaps one main reason is that deep analysis requires confronting the near intractable methodological issues mentioned previously.” However we can seek to evaluate perceived or outlined policy ‘failures’ with regards to their impact on advancing a policy learning approach. In this we can best see examples as laid out in (Onishenko and Erbland, 2016) which looks at the case of Ashley Smith, a convict in a correctional institute in Ontario, Canada. The evaluation of the policy failure which ultimately led to the death of Miss Smith was seen through the lens as a policy failure which led to the creation of a policy window in which changes were sought to the ways in which prisoners policy in Canada was developed. This offers us an insight into a tragic case of policy failure which cost a person their life, but the resulting policy window which opened was informed by the learnings from what not to do or indeed as stated by (Dunlop, 2017) a worst practice going on to provide policy learnings that inform future policy. With this in mind it’s important to take account of policy failures (in this case of Ashley Smith, which led to loss of life) providing an impetus for learnings to be retrieved and future policy to be adapted.

This failure of a clear cut definition that outlines a universal understanding to what constitutes a policy failure, can lead to a scarcity of sources which seek to address policy failures as an impetus for policy learning, but instead seek to outline the ways in which policies failed, and rather fail to take account of the opportunity for future policies to benefit from the learning contained within a particular policy approach that is undertaken.

Indeed when seeking to understand the framework for evaluation of policy failures, the approach outlined within (Bovens and Hart, 2016) that “The analysis of policy failures is, by definition, not a neutral endeavour, since policy fiascos are not neutral events. Moreover, they are often, usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, permeated with prosecutorial narratives, blame games and a search for culprits” goes some way to highlighting the challenge that is inherent within developing an approach that can be used to measure policy success or failure,

With the above in mind, it’s perhaps important to evaluate policies in line with (Dye, 2005) and how Dye views policy failure or success in terms of what works:

Does the government generally know what it is doing? Generally speaking,  no … (Even if programs and policies are well organized, efficiently operated, adequately financed, and generally supported by major interest groups, we may still want to ask, So what? Do they work? Do these programs have any beneficial effects on society? Are the effects immediate or long range?. . . Unfortunately, governments have done very little to answer these more basic Questions”


In conclusion we can see that there are a variety of ways in which one can seek to address policy failures, alongside the significant methodological challenges inherent in evaluating what constitutes a policy failure. We can however see that there is an impact in which perceived policy failures as well as actually policy failures can have an impact on policy learning, and impact upon the direction of future policy (Hinterleitner, 2017) & (Onishenko and Erbland, 2016) as an example of the ways in which perception of policy failure, alongside actual policy failure can impact upon policy learning.

It can be understood that overcoming the methodological challenges towards the development of a framework for understanding policy failures, such as that which is proposed in (McConnell, 2010) & (McConnell, A. 2015) afford the opportunity to categorise and interpret the ways in which policies can ‘fail’. It is understood that while a consistent understanding of what constitutes a policy failure is hard to come by, that there is sufficient methodological work across various strands of policy failure that would allow for one to interpret that indeed, within certain circumstances and defined within set parameters there is scope for policy learning to be conducted on the back of various types of policy failures, as outlined within the scope of the empirical research consulted in the discussion of this question contained within the above.


Jason Deegan

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate (Stipendiat) and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.

Leave a Reply