If at first you don’t succeed.. Institutional Failure in the Public Sector

A review of Public Policy and Administration’s special issue on policy failure

By Pim Derwort

In many ways, failure is an inevitable part of life. In many cases, it is also something we would rather not be reminded of and may be hard to accept. Some of the most inspirational movies and stories teach us how to accept or ‘let go’ and ‘move on’ from failure, or to learn from our mistakes on a personal level and generally become better persons for it. But what happens when failure occurs in the public sector?

In the public sector, ‘getting it wrong’ can have significant (and damaging) consequences for those affected. It can significantly damage the public’s trust in the political system, damage individual’s careers and, in extreme cases, may even lead to injury or loss of life. While failure may be just as inevitable, it is all the more important to prevent or learn from mistakes. Yet, in the public policy realm, plenty of examples remain of cases where important lessons remain unlearned, mistakes are buried, responsibility is deflected and the causes of the original failure continue unchallenged. Often, the same – or at least similar – mistakes are repeated time and again.

So what exactly do we understand by ‘failure’? Failure is often defined as the “lack of success”, or alternatively, as a “lack or deficiency of a desirable quality”. Judged by this definition, ‘failure’ is a negative concept, defined largely by the absence of concepts with more positive associations like ‘success’ or ‘quality’. As with general definitions of ‘failure’, definitions of ‘policy failure’ vary, and there have been considerable conceptual difficulties in providing a commonly accepted definition of ‘policy failure’. In its simplest form, failure has been defined as the ‘mirror image of success’ (McConnell, 2010). The difference between success and failure is, however, not always clear-cut. In many cases policies are not an outright success or outright failure, and may succeed in some respects while failing in others. There are many reasons why a policy may fail. A policy may be poorly designed and fail to tackle the problem it was intended to solve or largely be symbolic (e.g. Newig, 2007). Alternatively, a well-designed policy may unexpectedly fail due to unforeseen circumstances or simply not have the effect intended.

Failure can be measured in different ways, and is often subject to interpretation. Disagreement over whether a policy actually should be considered to have failed may arise depending on who is asked (see e.g. Bovens & ‘t Hart, 2011). Policy failures, inevitable or not, are not necessarily problematic. If it is possible to identify the causes of the failure, it may also be possible to adapt the policy or to replace it with one that is better suited. More problematic, however, are persistent policy failures, in which the same type of failure is repeated over time

In July 2015, Public Policy and Administration dedicated a special issue to the topic of ‘policy failure’. In this issue, the authors argue that, despite the volume of literature on policy success and failure, much of it has so far focused on conceptualisations of (different types of) failure, with considerably less attention for the sources of the problems leading to recurrent failures (Howlett, Ramesh & Wu, 2015, p.209). In addition, it is argued that a great deal of the research only examines the causes and characteristics of failed policies in individual cases, rather than looking at the broader political or socio-economic environment in which these policies are embedded (Peters, 2015, p.261), thus limiting our ability to learn from past mistakes. Therefore, the goal of this special issue is to improve our understanding of recurring failures by “examining a wide range of factors both within and beyond a policy subsystem” (Howlett, Ramesh & Wu, 2015, p.209).

Some of the contributions in this issue help improve our understanding of ‘policy failure’. In an attempt to overcome some of the conceptual difficulties, McConnell develops a ‘working definition of ‘failure’, arguing that “a policy fails, even if it is successful in some minimal respects, if it does not fundamentally achieve the goals that proponents set out to achieve, and opposition is great and/or support is virtually non-existent (2015, p.221). Failure is not only limited to policies and other contributions focus on failure in terms of, e.g. ‘state failure’, ‘governance failure’ and ‘implementation failure’ Importantly, Peters (2015, p.264) argues specific failures may only be “a symptom of a broader failure in governing”, and that, to be able to identify these forms of failure, it is important to look beyond just the proximate causes of observed policy failures per se, instead aiming to identify the more deeply seated roots of failure.

In my opinion, there are two main “lessons” to take away from this special issue:

  • Firstly, future research should continue to build on Peters’ thoughts and look beyond individual categories of failure, instead developing a better understanding of the bigger picture. To this end, I would like to propose that it is important to look at the concept of ‘institutional failure’.
  • Secondly, throughout the special issue, and indeed the wider literature, ‘failure’ largely continues to be regarded as something negative. McConnell is the only author to briefly refer to possible “positive benefits” that might ensue from failure in his contribution (2015, p.227), unfortunately without going into further detail. Further attention should be paid to the ways in which failure can allow us to learn important lessons and act as a driver for positive change.

The concept of ‘institutional failure’ has been interpreted in different ways, depending on the disciplinary perspective adopted. From a neo-classical economics perspective, it has been defined as “private and government sector failure” (Pitelis, 1992). Alternatively, from a sustainability perspective, it has been defined in terms of resource sustainability or the inability to conserve resources (Acheson, 2006). The innovation approach (Woolthuis et al., 2005) divides institutional failure into ‘hard institutional failure’ (failures in the framework of regulation and the legal system) and ‘soft institutional failure’ (failures in social institutions such as political culture and social values). Finally, while not everyone agrees (see e.g. Stacey & Rittberger, 2003), another perspective refers to institutions as organisations, regarding institutions as actors/players in their own right. Following these different definitions, the concept of ‘institutional’ failure is sufficiently broad to capture all of the different concepts mentioned above.

In his work, Newig (2013) identifies these as “productive functions” of failure, in that they may allow for valuable lessons to be learned, can trigger adaptations towards sustainability or purposefully destabilise existing unsustainable structures. Currently, these ideas are not yet sufficiently developed and there appear to be few systematic studies into the lessons that (institutional) failure can provide to scholars and practitioners. Focusing on institutional failure and its productive functions will therefore be at the heart of my PhD project over the next three years.



Acheson, J.M. (2006). ‘Institutional Failure in Resource Management’. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, pp.117-134.

Bovens, M. and ‘t Hart, P. (2011) Understanding Policy Fiascoes. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Howlett, M., Ramesh, M. & Wu, X. (2015). ‘Understanding the persistence of policy failures: The role of politics, governance and uncertainty’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp. 209-220.

McConnell, A. (2010). Understanding Policy Success: Rethinking Public Policy. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

McConnell, A. (2015). ‘What is policy failure? A primer to help navigate the maze’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp.221-242.

Newig, J. (2007). ‘Symbolic Environmental Legislation and Societal Self-Deception’. Environmental Politics, 16(2), pp.279-299.

Newig, J. (2013). ‘Produktive Funktionen von Kollaps und Zerstörung für gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse in Richtung Nachhaltigkeit’. In: Rückert-John, J. (Ed.)(2013). Soziale Innovation und Nachhaltigkeit, Innovation und Gesellschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien.

Peters, B.G. (2015). ‘State failure, governance failure and policy failure: Exploring the linkages’. Public Policy and Administration,30(3-4), pp.261-276.

Pitelis, C. (1992). ‘Towards a Neo-classical Theory of Institutional Failure’. Journal of Economic Studies, 19(1), pp.14-29.

Stacey, J. & Rittberger, B. (2003). ‘Dynamics of formal and informal institutional change in the EU’. Journal of European Public Policy, 10(6), pp.858-883.

Woolthuis, R.K., Lankhuizen, M. & Gilsing, V. (2005). ‘A system failure framework for innovation policy design’. Technovation, 25, pp.609-619.

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