Published on 14 November 2018
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Learning from policy success and failure

In August 2017, the ‘floating paradise’ of a garden bridge imagined spanning the River Thames was scrapped – London’s current Mayor Sadiq Khan was, understandably, furious that £37 million of public funds had already been sunk into the project without a single inch constructed. His predecessor Boris Johnson hit back in support of the idea saying ‘The only crumb of comfort is that good plans have now been developed and can be readily revived.’ But what makes a policy concept succeed or fail? How we can avoid investing in projects doomed to collapse? And how do we identify and learn from policy successes and failures? Written by Oliver Daddow.

Today governments demand policy be effective: this has thrust questions of policy success and failure firmly into the spotlight. Public policy decisions intricately shape the lives, livelihoods and opportunities for everyone in society, therefore decision-makers must design and execute policies that address people’s actual needs in meaningful ways.

In an ideal world, policy decisions should: be rooted in a methodical review of the relevant facts and figures; consider a range of opinions from experts and stakeholders (including critical voices); be owned strategically and managed tactically to deliver on promises; and target real world improvements in the lives of the intended beneficiaries, economically and socially.

As anyone who has studied politics knows, this ‘ideal type’ account of policy-making rarely holds in practice. Humans are fallible; we do not always listen to criticism; time can be tight; a crisis can erupt; key information can get overlooked or forgotten. To make matters worse, even successful policies usually produce losers or losses somewhere along the line.

Developing objective measures of what works and what does not, and what caused a policy to fail or succeed, is nigh on impossible. Instead, practitioners and scholars operate in investigative ‘grey areas’, weighing conflicting and often highly politicised accounts of what went on and why. What we can gather, nonetheless, is that addressing three key issues can certainly improve the chances of producing a successful policy.

1. Early warning systems

First of all, it is important to establish early-warning mechanisms that can highlight obvious flaws in a project before it is too late. There need to be contingency plans and an individual/collective willingness to pull the plug if things are off-track. The benchmarks for what is working need to be agreed by all stakeholders at the decision-taking stage and integrated into a systematic review process as the project rolls out. This avoids the problem of waste that can accrue from spending scarce time and material resources on projects that will not deliver the required public goods to the target communities. Robust early warning mechanisms should also catch at development stage policies that either turn out to be ‘white elephants’, such as the Bataan nuclear power plant in the Philippines, or vanity projects such as the Garden Bridge.

2. Working well is better than working cheap

When policies are pursued they need to come in on time and budget, but above all, they need to work in the interests of the target beneficiaries, and not be derailed by a ‘cost first and cost only’ mindset. The Grenfell Tower fire and the Genoa bridge collapse are just two examples of infrastructural tragedies arising from poor strategy and oversight, cynical cost-cutting for profit and diffuse responsibility for the most vital decisions that ultimately gave the go ahead to bad projects that cost lives.

3. Use a wide range of evidence

Decisions need to be taken on the basis of a wide, critically informed evidence base that avoids selection bias. Landmark foreign policy decisions such as the UK government’s decision to join the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 were made by a small circle of politicians and advisers who failed either to spot, or to pull, all the available policy levers. Politics, personality and group dynamics were important, with the most powerful members of the group, including Tony Blair, seemingly fixed – or feeling locked into – a particular course of US-led action from the start. Decision-making became affected by negative groupthink, which: entrenched cognitive biases by filtering out countervailing evidence; limited attention to alternative policy options; over-egged tiny, fragmented snippets of evidence in support of the preferred policy; and dimmed warning signs that flashed ‘no!’.

It is easier to explain why things go wrong with the benefit of hindsight, than it is to spot the signs and act on them in the hurly-burly world of politics and policy. The steps outlined above are all very well, but how far are they heeded in practice, if at all? At the Bennett Institute, we wanted to take forward the great strides already made by research into policy learning from successes and failures. We are bringing together policy-makers and scholars to share insights about the place and nature of policy learning and its impact upon the decision-making process.

At our conference on 14 November 2018, we are blending the academic theory with practical insights ‘from the coalface’, generating a nuanced account of policy learning which will help us answer pressing questions such as: How do policy-makers interpret success and failure? How do they use their experiences to inform future practices? How do policy-makers use expert evidence to inform their decisions? What can different national polities learn from each other about best practice in public policy-making? And crucially, how can we embed a culture of effective policy learning in institutions and governments to improve policy design and delivery?

The conference proceedings will be written up in a report for government. It will also inform future research on policy learning by members of the Bennett Institute and the wider scholarly community.

This article forms part of our policy success and failure series of blogs and the Bennett Institute report Policy Success and Failure: Embedding Effective Learning in Government.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).

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