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Beyond policy accidents: Learning the lessons of policy failures

29 August 2023



This book chapter from the Routledge International Handbook on Failure discusses the need to learning lessons from policy failures. Policy failures stem from three sources: the political, the process, and/ or the program aspects of public policy. They come in many different forms, types and subtypes. Distinguishing between them and their source of failure is a requisite first step in understanding the relationship between learning and failing.

Clarifying the concepts of policy success and failure

A common way to treat policy failures is as the obverse of policy success. In this instance, whatever does not succeed is a failure so that observers are seen not as creating their own interpretations in a purely subjective way.

For example, in one definition, policy success results when a policy achieves the goals that proponents set out to achieve and attracts no criticism of any significance and/or support is virtually universal. Conversely, policy failure results when a policy does not achieve the goals that proponents set out to achieve and no longer receives support from them.

Policies can fail in numerous different ways including:

  • Policy accidents: Where good plans are not executed properly.
  • Policy mistakes: Where good execution is wasted on poorly developed plans.
  • Policy fiascos: Where both poor planning and poor execution lead to very poor results.
  • Policy anomalies: Where the most rigorous analysis and execution still did not result in the achievement of goals, against all reasonable expectations given an existing policy paradigm.

The multidimensional nature of policy success and failure

An additional dimension concerns the extent of a failure. Sometimes an entire policy regime can fail. More often, specific programs within a policy field may be designated as successful or unsuccessful. A second key dimension is duration, with some failures being gradual and long-lasting, like a failure to deal with climate change. Others are much shorter and sharper in nature.

This also highlights that the publicness or visibility of failures differs across different policy success and failure scenarios. A fourth dimension is ‘avoidability’ -the idea that blame and its attribution are greater the more a failure might have been avoided.

Unpredictable and unavoidable events can generate more sympathy for policymakers than those which could have been easily predicted and averted. This was evident in the recent COVID-19 pandemic where the public was sympathetic towards policymakers grappling with a new and unknown disease.

Understanding the origins of policy failures: the “3P” approach

It has been argued that policy failures stem from the political, process, and/or program aspects of policy. For a policy to be successful at the program level, it must attain or exceed its original goals, at roughly the same cost and with the same degree of effort and within the same period as originally planned. With program failures, policies can fail in substantive and technical terms by failing to deliver expected outcomes.

However, it is also common for policies to fail in process terms – as being unable to proceed from idea to reality through the successful completion of a policy process. Policy process failures can occur in the following stages of the policy cycle:

  • Agenda-setting: Over-reaching governments establishing or agreeing to establish over-burdened or unattainable policy agendas.
  • Policy formulation: Attempting to deal with problems without investigating or researching problem causes and identifying the probable effects of policy alternatives.
  • Decision-making: Failing to decide on a policy within a reasonable period of time.
  • Policy implementation: Failing to deal with implementation problems including lack of resources, principal-agent problems, oversight failures and others.
  • Policy evaluation: Lack of learning due to ineffective, inappropriate or absent policy monitoring and/or feedback processes and structures.

Policy outcomes have political consequences affecting the ability of parties and individuals to obtain or retain their positions in government. The political aspects of policy failure can affect:

  • Executive (leadership): A negative policy evaluation undermines the credibility of a leader and their ability to command support.
  • Legislative: A negative policy evaluation affects coalition behaviour and parliamentary support for the government.
  • Partisan: A negative policy evaluation affects political party loyalties.
  • Electoral: A negative policy evaluation affects voter behaviour and support for the party/government/regime.

The bottom line

The different locations, types and sources of program, process and political policy failures, and their impact are outlined in the table below:

Source  Type of failure   Source  Impact 
Program  Technical, efficiency and 



Failure to match policy 

goals and means 


Leads to avoidable 

failure to deliver 

on expectations 

Process  Agenda-setting, policy formulation, decision-making, policy implementation and evaluation failures  Over-reaching or burdened government agendas, poor policy formulation, failed decision making, poorly resourced implementation, unsystematic evaluation  Policies fail to complete the policy cycle 


Political  Executive, legislative, partisan and electoral failures  Adverse judgements of government competency and leadership capabilities  Electoral defeat, de-legitimation and governance/ governmentality failures 

Understanding different types of failure is a necessary first step towards better understanding their causes and consequences. This can assist policymakers in devising ameliorative strategies to deal with their risk or threat.

Want to read more? 

Beyond Policy Accidents: Learning the Lessons of Policy Failures – Michael Howlett in The Routledge International Handbook on Failure, Routledge, January 2023

The Routledge International Handbook on Failure is available via individual or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 29 August 2023