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Successful Public Policy: lessons from Australia and New Zealand

4 June 2019

News and media


Image of two men smiling at a book launch

Debates around public policy focus too much on failure, and do not recognise the lasting value that governments can deliver the public through innovative policy reform.

The new ANZSOG/ANU Press book “Successful Public Policy: lessons from Australia and New Zealand”, edited by Joannah Luetjens, Professor Paul ‘t Hart and Professor Michael Mintrom, aims to address that shortcoming by promoting examples of good policy and inspiring current and future public managers.

The book is an antidote to pessimism about government, and a salute to the role governments play in building public value. It was launched at the University of Melbourne on 4 June, with ANZSOG Dean and CEO Ken Smith saying ANZSOG is proud to be involved with a book which focuses on successful public policy and shows that real change is possible and sustainable.

He said the book would be an invaluable corrective “to the outdated view that governments are only there to remedy market failures” by highlighting cases where governments had delivered public value.

“Public policy is instrumental to our environmental, social and economic wellbeing – the denigration of it has hopefully had its day,” he said.

He said that while other scholars and writers on policy focused primarily on design, the book took a broader view by including the implementation and politics of successful policy.

The book outlines 20 cases of policy success in Australia and New Zealand. These range from Australia’s success in combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and its policies to protect the economy from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, to New Zealand’s introduction of a no-fault accident compensation scheme, and the KiwiSaver retirement program.

Professor ’t Hart said that authors had defined policy success based on four criteria: programmatic success, sustainability, innovation and political success. Many of the cases are long-standing reforms which have gained and maintained public acceptance and bi-partisan political support.

“Once you start looking for this sort of thing there is no shortage of material,” he said.

“This is not a pep talk, it is part of a learning environment where we learn not just from our near misses and catastrophes, but from successes as well.”

He said a global version of the book – which would include some of the Australian and New Zealand cases, including the revitalisation of Melbourne – would be published later this year.

Professor ’t Hart likened the ambition of the book to the development of “positive psychology” in the field of psychology, in that it tried to move away from failure and dysfunction to discover what contributed to healthy behaviours in public policy.

While the authors would be accused of “naivete, or dancing to the tune of the powerful”, he believed that it was important to build some kind of “positive public administration”, to reframe the challenge facing governments, and what they could achieve.

He said that he and his fellow editors had asked contributors to avoid taking an ideology-based look at case studies and focus on the details of how policies were formulated and implemented.

He said that the book found that there were six recurrent patterns that seem to promote successful policy outcomes:

they tend to address a problem that has been well defined and broadly acknowledged at the outset of the policy development process
they tend to rest on conceptually coherent, evidence-informed advice that has paid attention to the realities of implementation
champions and stewards are key, not just during the design and decision-making phase, but equally critically during the implementation phase
astute policy advocates carefully build their cases for policy change, readying themselves to fit their workable solutions to the crisis of the hour
virtually all the policies we studied had sufficiently broad appeal that they survived changes of government from the party that gave them initial support
implementation challenges dog any major policy initiative – but when policymakers persevere, learn from experience, and adjust their approaches accordingly, they can help policies become major successes in the longer term.

Professor Jenny Lewis, who wrote a chapter on the successful revitalisation of the City of Melbourne, also spoke at the launch and said:

“In current times we don’t tend to hear very much positive about the state of politics, politicians and government. Indeed, almost anything that is said in public policy circles is negative.

“One of the drivers of this book is the desire to move away from a focus on policy failure and towards a recognition of the many policy successes that ca be found if one is prepared to look beyond the despair and negativity that dominates the public narrative of failure and, it has to be said, the academic narrative too.”

“We are doing the world a disservice by only focusing on policy failure, even though we certainly learn from it,” she said.

Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand is available now.

Executive Master of Public Administration

Professor Mintrom is the Academic Director of ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration (EMPA) ANZSOG’s Executive Master of Public Administration.

The EMPA degree produces graduates who are confident, critical thinkers with the skills required to manage complex challenges and deliver value to the communities they serve.

Applications for 2020 are now open. Find out more at the EMPA page.