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Policy Success and Failure

Summary and Keywords

How can we know if policies succeed or fail, and what are the causes of such outcomes? Understanding the nature of these phenomena is riddled with complex methodological challenges, including differing political perspectives, persistent mixed results, ambiguous outcomes, and the issue of success/failure “for whom”? Ironically, the key to understanding policy success and failure lies not in downplaying or ignoring such challenges, but in accepting politicization and complexity as reflective of the messy world of public policy. Gaining insight from such messiness allows a better understanding of phenomena like “good politics but bad policy,” the persistence of some failures over time, and widely differing perspectives on who or what should claim credit for policy success and who or what should be blamed for policy failure.

Keywords: policy success, policy failure, policy disaster, policy fiasco, policy evaluation, political risk


Governments produce policies, some of which succeed and some of which fail. Policies may also inhabit the ground in between. They survive, albeit bruised, or they become precarious and hang on the edge of outright failure. The logic of the policy cycle and indeed the public face of governments is that they seek successful policies, want to avoid failure, and are prepared to learn from mistakes when they happen. These are exceptionally high-stakes issues. Put crudely, success provides social benefits, while failure creates risks and dangers for target groups, as well for governments, who face backlash and the predicament of how to retain control of policy and political agendas.

Yet, for all the seriousness and significance of issues surrounding policy success and failure, there are real difficulties in understanding the phenomena. One reason is political. The language of “success” and “failure” is a daily feature of exchanges between governments, opposition parties, media, citizens, lobby groups, and others. No sooner is a policy articulated as successful by one political actor (often government) than this same policy is criticized by others as a failure. The fact that all sides use reports, evidence, examples, and moral reasoning can make the issue particularly perplexing. Such contestation carries through into the causes of failure, where discourse is replete with accusations and blame games (Brändström & Kuipers, 2003; Hood, 2011; Weaver, 1986). Alleged culprits range from incompetent policymakers to weak institutions and flawed ideologies. No matter the policy area in question—from tax reforms and healthcare provision to immigration controls and antiterror measures—agreement on the success or otherwise of a policy is rare.

Another reason is that the policy-studies literature offers surprisingly little help in the task of making sense of the issues. There has been relatively little direct engagement with the concepts of policy success and failure. There are some notable exceptions (Bovens & ‘t Hart, 1996; Bovens, ‘t Hart, & Peters, 2001; Dunleavy, 1995; Gray & ‘t Hart, 1998; Hall, 1982; Hogwood & Peters, 1985; Ingram & Mann, 1980; Kerr, 1976; King & Crewe, 2013; Marsh & McConnell, 2010; McConnell, 2010a, 2010b, 2011, 2015, 2016; Shuck, 2014), but by and large, success and failure are studied loosely and tangentially, as byproducts of either individual case studies (e.g., Newman & Head, 2015; Sharman, 2011) or analyses of specific aspects of policy processes, such as policy design, policy implementation, and policy evaluation. Even when we take into account the relatively small number of works addressing the issues head on, there are no widely accepted definitions of success/failure, or models of their causes.

There is an exceptionally wide range of definitions with vastly differing assumptions about the nature of our understanding. Shuck (2014, p. 41), for example, argued that policy success is not simply in the eye of the beholder, because a policy “works to the extent that produces outcomes that meet appropriate standards of effectiveness.” Nagel (1980, p. 12) argued that a policy is successful if it achieves its goals and its “benefits minus costs are maximized.” Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996, p. 4) argued that there are “no fixed criteria for success and failure” and that ultimately the issues are a matter of perspective. McConnell (2010b, p. 357) included political support or otherwise, 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.” Others do not define success/failure and treat them as self-evident (see Grossman, 2013).

Such a diversity of approaches is also reflected in different traditions within the policy-studies literature. Broadly, three main approaches can be identified, although they are not as neat and fully formed as presented here.

  • Success and failure as “fact”: Success and failure are objective phenomena, and with good research and strong evidence, their existence (or not) and their causes can be ascertained.

  • Success and failure as “perception”: The nature and causes of success and failure are a matter of opinion. No amount of research and evidence will persuade skeptics.

  • Success and failure as “constructed reality”: Some aspects of success and failure are tangible and are capable of being measured and explained, but other aspects will always be subject to varying interpretations.

The very existence of such diversity highlights the fact that understanding success and failure is an exceptionally difficult issue. It is highly politicized, under-researched, and symptomatic of the plurality of approaches to policy studies. The approach taken here is heuristic and seeks to redress the balance and advance our understanding. It is a framework to help us approach and think about complex phenomena, rather than a definitive theory that seeks to explain and predict, or a definitive model that seeks to operationalize and predict (Ostrom, 2007).

Analytically, the phenomena can be “sliced” five ways: First, the methodological difficulties of approaching matters of policy success and failure are identified. It is easy to see why they are challenging from the perspective of researchers. Second, as a basis of a deeper understanding, the DNA or building blocks of success and failure are identified, with each instance exhibiting variations in how they are configured. Third, with a holistic perspective on “policy,” breaking down public policymaking into subaspects (some of which may succeed while others fail) reveals the dynamics and trade-offs involved in public policymaking. Fourth, the causes of policy failure can be examined in a way that allows us to reconcile, at least for the purposes of analysis, widely competing perspectives. Fifth, the political and policy implications, much of which are counterintuitive, include the possibility that governments often tolerate, and even seek, failure.

Methodological Difficulties in Defining Policy Success and Failure

The relative lack of attention to success and failure is no doubt due in part to the sheer methodological difficulties in ascertaining what constitutes success and what constitutes failure. The difficulties reflect not only the complex nature of policy itself, but also the diversity of approaches within the broad discipline of policy studies.

Differing Perceptions

In plural political systems with competing views on the merits of otherwise differing societal values and political ideologies, disagreement over policy means, ends, and outcomes is the “norm.” From the normative strand of policy analysis, with its origins in the early postwar aspirations for social betterment (Lasswell, Lerner), to Marxist critiques highlighting irresolvable contradictions and pathologies at the heart of capitalist governments (Miliband, Offe, Gough, Harman), notions of what is desirable and what constitutes success (and failure) are present in virtually every academic piece of writing.

Different views surround every policy area. For example, the introduction of a national minimum wage is unlikely to be considered a success by advocates of unrestricted free markets because the measure would be seen as a costly barrier to markets’ finding an equilibrium. Similarly, government’s use of torture techniques to extract information from terrorist suspects can never be a success from the perspective of those who argue that such measures are a violation of human rights. Yet even when protagonists agree on the motives, means, and ends for a particular policy, they may disagree on whether the outcomes constitute success or failure. One can imagine two advocates of foreign aid disagreeing on the significance of small levels of accompanying corruption. One may see corruption as a small price to pay for the humanitarian benefits of the aid, while another may see any corruption as an unacceptable use of public funds. Addressing issues of success and failure cannot escape from the fact the one person’s success is often another person’s failure. Zittoun (2015) went further and suggested that argumentation is strategic, with actors using the language of success and failure to shape the policymaking process.

Multiple and Conflicting Policy Goals

Government goals are often considered the standard by which policy outcomes are assessed. This was certainly the case in Lasswell’s postwar vision for policy sciences, which would provide policymakers with impartial and robust knowledge for social betterment. Even today, the formal language of governments retains the spirit of the policy cycle, where evaluating is a process of ascertaining if intentions have been matched by outcomes—in order that we may “learn” when there are shortfalls. Yet, as analysts turned their attention specifically to processes of evaluation, it became understood that government goals are not always “neat” packages. Schuman (1967, p. 1), writing at a time of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, argued that the “elimination of economic, educational, medical, and social deprivation” was “difficult … even impractical” and logically inconsistent. The arrival of the first book-length attempt to address policy success and failure (Ingram & Mann, 1980), written amid the economic and political turbulence of the 1970s, led the authors to the view that government was expected to do “too much.” Hence there is the argument that “policy … often begins with the selection of unrealizable aims” (Ingram & Mann, 1980, p. 19). Bovens and ‘t Hart (1996) and Bovens, ‘t Hart, and Peters (2001), in their seminal works on policy fiascos and governance success/failure, fleshed out the political aspects of these issues by recognizing that policies were often expected to perform political goals, such as demonstrating government competence, as well as to actually address societal problems.

In practical terms, the existence of multiple goals brings the challenge of ranking their relative importance, which is tough. How do we weigh up outcomes where some goals are met and others not? A policy to topple a dictator in a “failed state” might succeed, only for the daily lives of citizens to become even more precarious. Goals can also conflict, or at the very least there may be a strong contention that they conflict. Policy discourse surrounding railways is replete with arguments about a trade-off between profits and safety. Ascertaining policy success and failure is bedeviled by the fact that ascertaining the merits or other policy outcomes must contend with the reality that success and failure usually coexist.

Multiple Benchmarks

If the single benchmark of government goals is complicated enough, in reality there are many standards by which we may ascertain if a policy has succeeded or failed. As policy studies has developed as a discipline, there is greater understanding of the complex and often politicized aspects of policy evaluation, e.g., as a legitimization for “more of the same,” or as construction of a problem to act as the catalyst for policy change. In reality, therefore, there are many potential standards for policy success and failure. They include, although are not limited to:

  • Original objectives: Do the outcomes match government goals? (For example, do they match public spending targets, immigration quotas?)

  • Target group: Does the policy affect the group that was the intended to be influenced/altered by the policy? (For example, did drunk drivers change their behavior in response to a public information campaign?)

  • Before–after comparison: Does the policy produce an improvement on the previous state of affairs? (Are there better public health outcomes after the introduction of smoking bans in pubs and clubs?)

  • Valued policy domain criterion: Does the policy protect core values that are accepted by the majority (if not all) key participants in that sector? (Do reforms of an intelligence agency protect national security?)

  • Balance sheet: Do the benefits outweigh the costs? (For example, do the congestion-reducing benefits of building a second airport on the periphery of a major city outweigh the costs to local residents?)

  • Comparison with another jurisdiction: Are the outcomes better than those in another jurisdiction dealing with similar problems? (Is one country better prepared than its neighbor for a terrorist attack?)

  • Ethics, morality, and the law: Does the policy conform to ethical principles, moral codes, and/or legal requirements? (Does a policy of harvesting metadata protect the privacy rights of citizens?)

  • Source of support/opposition: Does the policy have the support of key stakeholders? (Does a reduction in business red tape have the support of small business associations?)

  • Innovation: Does the policy display an enlightened/inventive approach to tackling the problem? (Does a new national broadband network use the most up-to-date technologies?)

Choosing between these many and often conflicting benchmarks is a political activity. Much depends on our worldview and our beliefs about how these values should be realized in practice. For example, a government introducing unpopular austerity measures may be inclined to argue for the success of the measures against the benchmarks of before–after (public debt has been reduced) and balance sheet (pain is necessary for economic survival). By contrast, opponents of the measures will be strongly inclined to argue that the measures have failed against the benchmarks of morality (the poor should not pay for economic mismanagement), source of opposition (a majority of voters are opposed), and even balance sheet (the social costs are greater than the economic benefits). Benchmarks for success and failure are a moveable, politicized feast.

Degrees of Success and Failure

Success and failure are rarely all or nothing. Notwithstanding the issues mentioned above, shortfalls can be large or small. Are small degrees of failure sufficient to say that a policy isn’t successful? Does a new road tunnel completed two months late mean that the project is a failure? Correspondingly, do quite substantial failures mean that a policy simply isn’t successful? The Common Agricultural Policy and production incentives offered to farmers almost bankrupted the European Union (EU) in the 1980s and produced huge surpluses that did little for the image of the EU, but the policy did help the EU become almost wholly self-sustaining in its food supplies. Are such outcomes successes? Failures? Both? Even many contemporary works on success and failure have experienced difficulty in conceptualizing outcomes that are a combination of success and failure. For example, Bovens et al. (2001, p. 596), in a mammoth volume on four policy sectors in six countries, wrote that it may be more appropriate to label a case a nonfailure, rather than to speak of straightforward success.

Success and Failure for Whom?

Public policy by its very nature affects the rights, rewards, and obligations of citizens. From financial incentives and penalties to regulation and restriction of behavior, impacts on citizens can vary. Some will benefit and others may lose. For example, a new tax on winnings from gambling will act as a financial disincentive for gamblers but will make little or no difference to those who do not gamble. Similarly, a new policy to fund childcare places for 3- to 4-year-olds will benefit parents but have little or no impact on those who do not have young children. Indeed, success for one group may depend on a failure for another. A waste refuse plant built near a housing development will be a success for some (the local council, waste management operators) but a failure for others (local residents). The words success and failure imply the desirability or undesirability of policies and their outcomes. Public policy uses the constitutional authority of the state to intervene in people’s lives, allocating and removing rights and rewards across multiple groups. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in plural societies with divisions based on race, class, gender, income, wealth, and more, what is successful for one group may well not be a success for all.

Variations in the Availability and Strength of Evidence

Evidence to evaluate the impact of a policy may not be available or may be partial at best. (How do we know if child protection measures are working when many estimates indicate that the vast majority of child abuse is undetected?) Furthermore, there are often multiple evidence bases, such as the evidence of experts, administrators, and politicians, each with different evidence that a policy has (or hasn’t worked) in their respective domains (Head, 2008). Issues of a policy’s political acceptability, effectiveness, and affordability are not always in sync. Arguably, also, the true value of a policy can only be understood if we can envisage what would happen in its absence, but we rarely have the evidence to support such an assessment. While some areas are more amenable to modeling based on strong predictions (such as a 1% increase in the basic rate of income tax), others are not (such as the introduction of new industrial relations legislation). For researchers, there is the real difficulty of whether and how to “fill in” the evidence gaps, let alone reconcile ambiguous and competing evidence.

Multiple Time Frames

The words success and failure typically convey the impression of being the “last word” on whether a policy has performed well or badly. Yet many policies have lasting effects that reverberate over years, decades, and indeed centuries. Such effects may vary over the years in terms of bolstering or diminishing the case for a policy’s having succeeded or failed. Income tax cuts, for example, might succeed in stimulating short-term demands in the economy but fail in the longer term because they stimulate inflationary pressures. By contrast, some policies that seem initially to have failed are open to more positive assessments in the longer term because of new evidence and new outcomes, or even the fact that they provided the opportunity for further successful policy change. Edelstein (2008), in his study of military occupations, made the point that success must be included in an analysis of the long term—in this case, whether an occupation creates and sustains political, economic, and social stability.

Overall, matters of success and failure seem to be a methodological minefield. The difficulties are compounded because in the policy and political arenas, the gray areas, ambiguities, and contradictions often play out very simply. Policy supporters and policy critics will tend toward reaffirming their views, unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise. Protagonists will tend to emphasize achievements or failings (as appropriate), marshalling the evidence that supports their view, ignoring ambiguities or marginalizing the evidence, and citing arguments that point in the opposite direction.

While some may be tempted to wish away the methodological challenges and political contestation surrounding issues of policy success and failure, we can usefully remind ourselves of Wildavsky (1987) and his depiction of policy analysis as “art and craft.” He utilized this phrase for good reason. Policy problems imbued with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty are all around us, while there are differing moral and practical views on the most appropriate way forward. Ultimately, inventiveness and judgment should be seen as a means for navigating through the facets of public life, rather than decrying them for their apparent lack of scientific certainty.

The DNA of Success and Failure

Success and failure can vary in many respects, including how big or small they are and how long they last. Of course, we can never escape the fact that political actors often hold differing views on such issues, but at least for present purposes we enhance our understanding by identifying the building blocks of success and failure. The corollary is that every success and every failure is configured differently.


Given that policy refers broadly to what governments choose to do or not to do (Dye, 2012), then success and failure can vary in scale from small to large. For example, failure could apply to a small pilot program, a large policy initiative, a series of reform initiatives, or an entire governance agenda. Peters (2015) went further and suggested that failure may be set policy, organizations, political parties, and even states.


The capacity for success and failure to spread across other policy sectors and other jurisdictions can be explained partly with reference to positive and negative feedback. In essence, the former involves learning from what works, and the latter from what doesn’t work. Therefore, as the policy transfer and policy diffusion literature indicates (Dolowitz & Marsh, 2000; Stone, 2013) success may spread because others perceive there is good reason to adopt some or all aspects of a successful policy (from the basic idea to the detailed policy instruments). For example, the Gateway Review process for effective management of public procurement decisions was adopted in Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands (Fawcett & Marsh, 2012). Correspondingly, in increasingly complex and overlapping policy environments, failures have the capacity to spread like viruses. From financial crises and migration crises to health epidemics and cyber terrorism, failures in one location can spread rapidly across national and policy borders (Ansell, Boin, & Keller, 2010; Legrand & McConnell, 2012; Topper & Lagadec, 2013).


Successes and failure can be more or less visible within the organization itself, to government more broadly, and also to the media and citizens. The failure of a small departmental reform within a public university may barely be visible beyond the department itself. By contrast, the failure of a department within a national passport agency may be high on political agendas—if not in the “court” of public opinion.


To use a metaphor, the intensity is the extent to which an issue is “hot” or “cold.” This is not the same thing as visibility. Some failures can be visible on policy agendas but quite “cold” because they are largely uncontroversial (e.g., some maritime safety issues). Correspondingly, some issues can be visible and “hot” (e.g., regulation of expenses for elected representatives following a scandal).


Policies can succeed (or fail) only for so long. Some successes are short term and transient. Peace agreements are an example, with the success of roughly half being transient (Bekoe, 2008). By contrast, some successes can endure over long time periods, such as the huge Dutch public infrastructure system of dams and dykes that since the 1930s has protected 60% of the population. Some failures can also be short term, and a catalyst for reflection, learning, and policy change (e.g., a healthy eating campaign that does not lead to any improvement in health outcomes). Of course, some failures may also be long term and chronic (e.g., failure to tackle serious inner city congestion and pollution). The range of possibilities is extensive. The persistence of some policy failures is not well understood (Howlett, Ramesh, & Wu, 2015) and learning from failures is far from automatic (May, 1992).


Success and failure can do a little damage or a lot. Some failures produce damage that is perfectly capable of being absorbed without challenging core policies or their ideals. For example, low levels of customer complaints in the wake of electricity privatization are unlikely to knock off course a government strongly committed to privatization and an underlying market ideology. There is a high level of systemic resilience in the face of such failures. By contrast, some failures may wreak tremendous damage, not only to the integrity of the policy and key political elites, but also perhaps even to government itself. The entire Dutch cabinet resigned in 2002, facing a backlash for peacekeeping failures and the massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Interestingly, one might not imagine successes as being damaging, but they can be. Success can bring problems that seem just as great, if not greater, than the problems that were being addressed. The Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union and its various production incentives did much to boost production, to protect farmers’ incomes, and to ensure self-sufficiency in food supplies, but they almost bankrupted the EU in the 1980s and produced huge, wasteful surpluses that became a public-relations nightmare.

The building blocks of size, spread, visibility, intensity, duration, and damage can come together in many different ways to produce successes and failure of all colors. Yet, by reducing them to their basic elements, we have the capacity for cross-case comparison.

The “Policy” Dimensions of Success and Failure

There are many definitions of policy, but they amount to broadly the same thing. As Dye (2012, p. 12) argued: public policy is “whatever governments choose to do or not to do.” Logically, therefore, governments may succeed or fail in what they choose to do (or not to do). Potentially, we can dissect what government does in many different ways. One particularly useful way, developed out of the literature on policy success (Marsh & McConnell, 2010; McConnell, 2010a, 2010b, 2011, 2015, 2016), inspires thinking about the dynamics and trade-offs in public policymaking. Specifically, policy can be subdivided into processes, programs, and policies (see Table 1). It is worth noting here the argument of some analysts (Bovens, 2010; Bovens & ‘t Hart, 2016) that processes are politically driven and therefore there should only be two categories (programs and politics). However, maintaining a separate process category for purposes of analysis (while recognizing that it is politically driven), helps us better understand the risks of certain types of policymaking processes and strategies (e.g., rushing a bill through the legislature with minimal scrutiny, or “importing” a policy from another jurisdiction with minimal evidence that it actually was effective in that location). These issues are discussed more fully in the section “Implications for the Dynamics of Policy Making.”

Table 1. Success and Failure across Process, Program, and Politics

Policy as Process


Resilient Success/Tolerable Failure

Conflicted Success/Conflicted Failure

Outright Failure

Preserving Goals and Policy Instruments

Policy goals and instruments preserved, despite minor failure to achieve goals.

Preferred goals and instruments proving controversial and difficult to preserve. Some revisions needed.

Government unable to produce its desired policy goals and instruments.

Securing Legitimacy

Some challenges to legitimacy but of little or no lasting significance.

Difficult and contested issues surrounding policy legitimacy, with some potential to taint the policy in the long term.

Policy process illegitimate.

Building Sustainable Coalition

Coalition intact, despite some signs of disagreement.

Coalition intact, although strong signs of disagreement and some potential for fragmentation.

No building of a sustainable coalition.

Attracting Support for Process

Opposition to process is low level and outweighed by support.

Opposition to process and support are equally balanced.

Opposition to process is virtually universal and/or support is virtually non-existent.

Policy as Program

Tolerable Failure

Conflicted Failure

(Outright) Failure

Implementation in Line with Objectives

Implementation objectives broadly achieved, despite minor failures and deviations.

Mixed results, with some successes, but accompanied by unexpected and controversial failings.

Despite minor progress toward implementation as intended, program is beset by chronic failures, proving highly controversial and very difficult to defend.

Achieving Desired Outcomes

Outcomes broadly achieved, despite minor shortfalls.

Some successes, but the partial achievement of intended outcomes is counterbalanced by unwanted results, generating substantial controversy.

Some small outcomes achieved as intended, but overwhelmed by controversial and high-profile failure to produce results.

Benefitting Target Group(s)

A few shortfalls and possibly some anomalous cases, but intended target group broadly benefits.

Partial benefits realized, but not as widespread or as deep as intended because of substantial failings.

Small benefits are accompanied and overshadowed by damage to the very group that was meant to benefit. Also likely to generate high-profile stories of unfairness and suffering.

Satisfying Criteria Highly Valued in Policy Domain

Not quite the outcome desired, but despite flaws, close enough to lay strong claim to fulfilling the criteria.

Partial achievement of goals, but accompanied by failures to achieve, with possibility of high-profile examples.

A few minor successes, but plagued by unwanted media attention.

Attracting Support for Program

Opposition to program aims, values, and means of achieving them is stronger than anticipated, but easily outweighed by support.

Opposition to program aims, values, and means of achieving them is equally balanced with support for same.

Opposition to program aims, values, and means of achieving them outweighs small levels of support.

Policy as Politics

Tolerable Failure

Conflicted Failure

(Outright) Failure

Enhancing Electoral Prospects/ Reputation

Favorable to electoral prospects and reputation enhancement, despite minor setbacks.

Policy obtains strong support and opposition, working both for and against electoral prospects and reputation in fairly equal measure.

Despite small signs of benefit, policy proves an overall electoral and reputational liability.

Easing the Business of Governing

Despite some problems in agenda management, capacity to govern is unperturbed.

Policy proving controversial and taking up more political time and resources in its defense than was expected.

Clear signs that the agenda and business of government struggle to suppress a politically difficult issue.

Promotion of Government’s Desired Trajectory

Some refinements needed but broad trajectory unimpeded.

Direction of government very broadly in line with goals, but clear signs that the policy has promoted some rethinking, especially behind the scenes.

Entire trajectory of government in danger of being compromised.

Providing Political Benefits for Government

Opposition to political benefits for government is stronger than anticipated, but outweighed by support.

Opposition to political benefits for government is equally balanced with support for same.

Opposition to political benefits for government outweighs small levels of support.

Note: (*) There are two terms for each column heading. Either can be used, depending on the needs of the analyst.

Source: Adapted from McConnell (2015).

Governments and policymakers produce policies. They engage in processes of defining problems, examining policy alternatives, consulting, gaining agreement and so on. From a government’s or policymaker’s perspective, they may succeed or fail in steering the processes. An ideal model of such steering would have success characterized by: (a) no gap between the policy that government set out to obtain approval for and what was actually approved; (b) widespread acceptance that legitimate means, such as the legislative process and solid evidence bases, were used; (c) the construction of a sustainable coalition of interests; and (d) the attraction of support for the process. Of course, an alternative outcome is process failure. For example, we can imagine a scenario where a government seeks to use a rarely used constitutional procedure to bypass the legislature and approve troop deployment overseas, only for the initiative to fail amid a powerful backlash claiming that the move was “undemocratic.”

Governments (and policymakers) also produce programs. They produce a detailed set of interventions involving a range of policy instruments, designed to produce specific outcomes. Again, an idealized version of success would mean that such programs would (a) be implemented as intended; (b) achieve the desired outcomes, including benefiting as anticipated the appropriate target group or groups; (c) agree with commonly held values that are appropriate to that policy domain (e.g., protection of national security by the intelligence sector); and (d) attract support for the program’s aims, values, and means of achieving them. Once again, of course, an alternative outcome is program failure. The failures of Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica are a case in point. It would be difficult to imagine program outcomes being any worse across all measures.

Governments (and policymakers) also “do” politics. It would be naive to think that the only concern of governments is producing and implementing policies and that they are not interested in political repercussions. From government’s perspective, an idealized version of political success is when government’s doing (or not doing) (a) enhances the reputation/electoral capital/career aspirations of government and key individuals, (b) helps government keep control of the business of governing—including policy agendas, (c) helps promote its broad governing trajectory and ideas, and (d) garners support for any political benefits accruing to government. The Bush Administration’s response to the events of September 11, 2001, was a remarkable political success on all fronts, contrasting with the outcomes of the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which were near-terminal for George W. Bush.

Governments may be successful or unsuccessful against these measures, but outcomes are often somewhere in between. As Table 1 indicates, some failures are tolerable, in the sense that shortfalls and problems are capable of being absorbed because, on balance, the successes outweigh the failures. In other instances, success and failure coexist in an uneasy balance (referred here to as conflicted success or conflicted failure). They are not fatal enough for policy termination, but neither are successes so significant that they legitimate the status quo—at least without some refinement and reform.

Causes of Success and Failure

There is no single, universally agreed perspective on the reasons for success and the causes of failure (McConnell, 2016). Public policy is not implemented in a laboratory, where we can isolate variables, establish controls, and identify causality with very high degrees of confidence. In the real world, links between policies and outcomes are often complex and contested. A public information campaign to encourage healthy eating and a subsequent change in patterns of food consumption (for better or worse) does not necessarily mean that the causes of success (or failure) reside in government policy. Other potential causal factors include media stories, changes in peer behavior, and chance. Correlation is not the same thing as causality. Potentially, there are many ways of breaking down causal factors. Causes are not always mutually exclusive, but the approach taken here helps us engage with some of the main political narratives and counternarratives that surround the causes of success and failure.

Good vs. Bad Judgment

Use of the term judgment involves a very individualized, agency-based assumption about the driving forces behind success and failure. It is based on emphasizing certain attributes (or lack of them) in decision makers and others involved in shaping public outcomes (e.g., their competence, motivation, professionalism, expertise, and endeavor). Policy success stories are often be attributed to the quality of the experts, policymakers, and leaders who had “vision.” In 1996, Australian reform of guns law was attributed widely to Prime Minister John Howard, who was able to capitalize on an outpouring of public anxieties and grief after the Port Arthur massacre. Failures, by contrast, can be equally personalized. The failures of the U.K. poll tax in 1989–1990 were attributed widely to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who cast aside numerous warning signs (including from within her own cabinet) that a per-capita tax levied on rich and poor alike would be administratively unworkable (Butler, Adonis, & Travers, 1994). Such individualized explanations are in line with arguments about the personalization of politics, where the media, citizens, and others attribute success and failure to the quality of the leaders.

Good vs. Bad Policy

The explanations for success or failure can lie with the assumption that the policy itself was intrinsically good or bad. In the language of policy analysis, it means the assumption that a particular policy (X) was (or was not) the best way to address problem (Y). It can be difficult to separate such factors from decision-making processes and the individual decision makers involved, but nevertheless allegations that a policy was simply good or bad are commonplace in political discourse.

Good vs. Bad Design

The emphasis here is on policy design and policy instruments used, including assumptions about target groups, expected behavioral change, and so on. According to such narratives, therefore, successful policy often resides in policy design and the diligent work undertaken (Schneider & Ingram, 1997). By contrast, bad policy is considered to be policy that is poorly designed, particularly if it shows a lack of engagement with disadvantaged target groups.

Good vs. Bad Implementation

The key explanatory factor in implementation is the extent to which the policy was (or wasn’t) put into practice as intended. These are classic policy implementation matters and there are important debates on how feasible it is to separate implementation issues from design issues (May, 2015). Nevertheless, the implementation narratives focus on issues like communication, coordination, clarity of rules, and the role and adaptability of implementing officials (street-level bureaucrats). Successive Labor governments in Australia failed to effectively manage the machinery of governance in order to introduce a carbon pricing initiative (Newman & Head, 2015). By contrast, the success of the London Challenge to improve standards in the poorest performing schools has been attributed to tight project management and the careful harnessing of local expertise (Kidson & Norris, 2014).

Good vs. Bad Institutions and Institutional Environments

Institutions are an important first port of call for many policy analysts and political scientists. The inference is that explanations for success and failures can be found in institutional rules, procedures, norms, values, cultures, and histories. Much of the rhetoric surrounding waves of public sector administrative reform is that success stems from the adoption of certain norms, processes, and structures, such as new public management, public value, whole of government, and so on. By contrast, some arguments focus on the latest “isms” as being a recipe for failure—typically because they often veer too much in one direction (such as departmentalism) and ignore the merits of some institutional factors of which they are highly critical (Hood & Jackson, 1992; O’Flynn, Buick, Blackman, & Halligan, 2011). Hood (1998) argued that all organizational types have vulnerabilities, such as the centralist type, which is at risk of producing failed “think big” projects.

Good vs. Bad Luck

Bad luck is the blameless explanation for failure. It presumes that, despite good intentions and good policies, matters were thrown off course by chance. For example, failure to build a new rail link may be blamed on the “bad luck” of an unforeseeable global financial crisis that rendered the proposals unaffordable. By contrast, good luck as an explanation for success implies that good intentions and good policies needed assistance from fortuitous circumstances (such as an economic boom) in order to produce successful outcomes.

Good vs. Bad Society

Explanations depending on society rest firmly with the deeper values and ideologies of society. Successes happen in “good” societies, whose values many consider to be the root of all achievements. Fukuyama wrote of liberal democracy as being the highest form of political and social organization, largely free of internal contradictions. He argued that there was nothing intrinsic to liberal democracy that might prevent effectively tackling complex social issues, such as drugs, crime, and environmental damage. A contrasting view is that the origins of failure reside deep in flawed societies.

Such varied explanations are highly political, in the sense that amid a range of potentially conflicting causal factors, different arguments privilege some factors more than others. Indeed, arguments often contain deeper assumptions about the nature of our societies and their capacities to do well or do badly. Adapting Bovens and ‘t Hart’s (1996) argument, we can conceive of optimistic, pragmatic, and pessimist views.

Optimistic views of success tend to attribute success to factors like strong political leadership, robust institutions, and strong democratic values. The logic is that, if we want continued policy success, we need more of the same (e.g., another election victory for the incumbent government, the next wave of institutional reforms to be informed by the same principles of efficiency and joined-up working, or further promotion of ideological principles like free markets or social democracy). Optimistic views of failure tend to assume that because our institutions and values are fundamentally solid, failures can be remedied by getting rid of “bad apples” (individuals who lack sound judgment or behave improperly) and replacing them with higher-caliber individuals. Optimistic accounts might also extend to installing better safeguards in our policymaking processes to limit the impact of individuals who are not up the job. The optimistic view of failure may also emphasize the role played by bad luck. Overall, optimistic views are confident in their assumptions about what brings success, and they are unphased by failure.

Pragmatic explanations of success may well recognize the beneficial impact of matters like good leadership and robust institutions, but they also contain a dose of realism in recognizing that good outcomes are not always easily explained. Success may, for example, be the product of fortuitous circumstances or clever framing to articulate and gain support for a narrative. Pragmatic perspectives on failure would certainly recognize “bad apple” explanations, but they would be of the view that changes in personnel are not the only solutions to reduce the risk of failure in the future. A pragmatic approach would argue that learning lessons requires deep institutional reform. For example, Shuck (2014) offered a strong critique of multiple policy failures in the United States among Democrats and Republicans alike. He argued ultimately that the prospects for successful policy (and the avoidance of failure) are higher if policy officials adopt a more nuanced cost–benefit analysis that is sharper in key aspects of policy design (especially in terms of target groups and incentives) while being pragmatic in recognizing that powerful interests and veto points make dramatic policy change very difficult.

Pessimistic views of success are that it is a transient phenomenon, often precipitated by good luck rather than being the product of a successful society. Pessimistic accounts of failure would not completely discount explanations like rogue individuals or institutional failings, but in the last analysis, failure is considered the product of a pathological society. For example, Harman (2010) argued that the 2007–2008 financial crisis can only be explained with reference to Karl Marx and his exposition of the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism. Such perspectives offer little hope for the capacity of inquiries, new personnel, new policies, and new institutional arrangements to avert failure in the future.

Implications for the Dynamics of Policy Making

The framework presented here helps us navigate difficult conceptual and practical issues surrounding the nature and causes of both policy success and policy failure. Yet there are deeper issues in relation to the dynamics of public policy.

Contradictions and Trade-Offs in Policy Formation

Dividing policy into processes, programs, and politics is more than simply a convenient way of understanding ways in which government may succeed or fail. It helps us engage with the reality that the practice of designing and implementing public policies often involves a series of trade- offs (i.e., seeking success in some respects at the risk of failure in others).

For example, a government seeking to rush a bill through the legislature while keeping scrutiny and capacity for opposition to a minimum (process success) may be risking the production of a policy that will struggle to be put into practice effectively because of a lack of scrutiny of implementation issues and a lack of sustainable support from stakeholders who matter (program failure). Such moves may also backfire politically on reputations, keep bouncing back in troublesome fashion, strike at the heart of government’s ability to control its agenda, and damage the very ideological beliefs the government is attempting to promote.

Another form of trade-off is between the program and political dimensions of success and failure. For example, a well-executed and successful package of budget cutbacks risks damage to political reputations and governing trajectories. Althaus (2008) argued that all policies carry varying degrees of political risk, and that a political risk calculation, whether formal or instinctive, is involved in all considerations of policy solutions.

The inverse scenario is political success and program failure. This combination may seem counterintuitive but in reality there is a solid logic. Governments may often succeed in political terms, precisely because a program has failed. For example, a government may create, inflate, or exploit failures in “garbage can” fashion, to help legitimate political intentions, such as a charting a new course (Boin, McConnell, & ‘t Hart, 2009). Political success and program failure can go hand in hand in another respect. Wicked problems help illustrate this point (i.e., wicked problems have multiple, complex definitions and multiple and typically contested solutions). Typical examples would be poverty, racism, drug abuse, crime, and gender inequalities. The fact that a program may fail to tackle deep-rooted causes of failure, or even to make limited inroads into addressing the symptoms, does not always stop governments from reaping political benefits. Governments often succeed in retaining a strong degree of control over the business of governing and potentially crowded policy agendas, precisely because a major value of some programs is political (government can show there are policies in place to tackle an issue that people care about) rather than in any expectation that a policy’s success will stretch much beyond alleviating some of the symptoms of the problem. One might refer to such policies as “placebo policies,” in the sense that their very existence cultivates the impression of tackling problems, and in doing so helps push contentious issues further down policy agendas, even on a temporary basis. Edelman (1977) argued that unsuccessful policies can be politically viable through the symbolic reassurance of “feel good” language.

Framing Success and Failure is a Political Issue

We know that policy outcomes are typically a bundle of successes and failures, underpinned by varying and often disputed evidence bases and so on. Amid multiple gray areas and ambiguities, ascertaining whether a policy has succeeded or failed is a complex and, some might argue, impossible matter. Yet policy narratives of success and failure are quite the opposite. They are simple. For example, in the case of policy actors’ constructing and seeking to build support for a success narrative, there is no value in highlighting shortfalls and failings. Indeed, doing so can be counterproductive because it exposes weaknesses for critics to exploit. The same applies to those attempting to promote a failure narrative. To admit some element of success creates narrative space for opponents to produce a counternarrative. Deploying the language of success and failure is a political act. Competition in political arenas to produce persuasive policy narratives produces simplicity, privileging certain factors and marginalizing or ignoring others, including gray areas and ambiguities.

Governments Don’t Always Seek Success or Want to Avoid Failure

Pursuing some successes can come at a price—and often a price that policymakers are not prepared to pay. Sometimes the marginal costs and effort required to improve on existing successes are too high. Low levels of drug abuse in a society would require huge resources and intervention if the goal were zero drug abuse. Indeed, Wildavsky (1988) argued that “searching for safety” actually increases danger. For example, small numbers of side effects and occasional deaths can be the outcome of new drug. However, not introducing the drug because of the marginal harm it may cause denies its benefits to others. Taking this principle further, it may be the case that pursuing some successes can create huge risks. Poverty could be eliminated overnight simply by printing money and giving it to the poor, but doing so would (among other things) create huge inflationary pressures because of increased demand.

The corollary of these points is that failure is often tolerated. Indeed failure may even be desired in some respects. Failure can be the catalyst for policy reform and hence policymakers often help create, cultivate, or exploit crisis conditions (and using the language of crisis) in order to harness fears and uncertainty for the purposes of policy reform (Boin, ‘t Hart, & McConnell, 2009). Garbage-can theory also applies. In essence, it turns on its head the conventions of the policy cycle where problems are the driving force for solutions. Garbage-can theory recognizes that policymaking often begins with the preferred policies of policymakers, who seek to cultivate and frame existing conditions as “problems” in need of solutions (their own). For instance, new governments seeking to promote radical reforms often “discover” budget blowouts left by the previous administration. Policymakers do not always seek success and avoid failure. Trade-offs and tensions means that pursuing one goal can potentially compromise another. Hence, some failures are, under the circumstances, often tolerable for policymakers. Building a new motorway, for example, may come at the (tolerable) price of alienating some communities because homes and land are subject to compulsory purchase.

Success and Failure Can Spread Like Viruses

Once successes (or at least dominant narratives of success) take hold, capacity is created for more of the same through processes of positive feedback. Through policy transfer, policy learning, and policy diffusion, policy successes and the ideas behind them can be “exported” to other policy sectors and jurisdictions. Privatization and the public sector are two of the biggest waves of positive feedback in modern times. Of course, such matters are not simply policy actors’ rationally seeking to learn from good ideas that have worked elsewhere (although this may be the case). The spread of success can be facilitated and even required by the power, authority, and norms of key political actors. Sharman (2011), in his study of the rapid growth of anti-money-laundering (AML) policies, wrote of a coercive policy diffusion where poorer states were blacklisted if they did not introduce state-of-the-art AML policies. This was true despite extensive evidence that that the value of AML policies is principally in cultivating the perception that stringent regulations are in place, rather than in actually preventing illegal flows of money.

Failures can also spread across policy sectors and jurisdictional boundaries. At times this spread may be the product of complex overlaps in policy sectors, where failure in one sector sets up pathologies in another. Policy sectors are increasingly interlinked, both nationally and globally, from environment and transport to public health and energy systems. Failure in one sphere can cascade across others. Major epidemics, such as SARS and avian influenza, can affect tourism, just as financial crises can lead to cutbacks in public healthcare. Failure can be contagious in the sense that ideas and policies that are framed overly simplistically as “working” in one country can be adopted by others, who copy mistakes and practices that are not necessarily viable for a different context (Stone, 2013).


Whether policies are successful or not, and what factors produced success/failure, will continue to be intensely political issues. It is doubtful that there will ever be widespread agreement on such issues, just as it is doubtful societies founded on pluralism and diversity will reach consensus on policy problems, priorities, and the best means of tackling them. Nevertheless, we should not stop developing our understanding of policy success/failure, and perhaps nudging policy in more effective and accountable directions. Over the next few decades and more, we are likely to see extensive analysis and discussion of three key issues:

  1. 1. What are the main “families” of successes and failures (i.e., shared building blocks)? If we can gain a better understanding of the relationship between uniqueness and commonality, we are better placed to think about the causes and implications of failure. For example, are some types of failures more easily absorbed by political systems than others? Are some types of successes better insulated from the scrutiny of inquiries when things go wrong?

  2. 2. Are failures “normal” (in the same vein as Perrow, 1999, and his argument about the inevitability of “normal accidents” in complex, industrialized societies) and therefore we should not expect too much of policymakers? Or are there viable measures and safeguards that can be used by policymakers, experts, and advisors to minimize the risks of failure?

  3. 3. Is there a saturation point where political regimes can no longer sustain themselves with unsuccessful policies? To put the issue another way, are ongoing policy failures actually a “creeping crisis,” where we are headed slowly to a tipping point because business-as-usual inquiries and reviews are not particularly effective in producing better, less risky policies?

In a sense, the subtext of these issues is simple. Do we feel confident enough that governments have got the balance between success and failure “about right,” or does something need to change?


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