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Understanding why policymakers ‘do nothing’

27 November 2019



Silhouette of a disabled woman in a wheelchair and her work team

‘Why doesn’t the government do something about this?’ is a complaint often heard in legislatures, TV debates, opinion pieces, letters to the editor and cyberspace. Why do policymakers do nothing and what contributes to policy inaction?

At a glance

In paper for Policy Sciences, Allan McConnell (University of Sydney) and Paul ’t Hart (Utrecht University) examine inaction in public policy. They present five types of inaction:

  • calculated inaction
  • ideological inaction
  • imposed inaction
  • reluctant inaction
  • inadvertent inaction.

The authors also explore the core drivers of inaction from the perspective of individuals, public organisations, governments and networks

What is policy inaction?

Policy inaction is defined as:

an instance and/or pattern of non-intervention by individual policymakers, public organisations, governments or policy networks in relation to an issue within and potentially within their jurisdiction and where other plausible potential policy interventions did not take place.

There are four aspects to this definition

  1. It captures inaction which is not only inadvertent, but also purposeful. This can include not committing resources, not proposing bills, not authorising or undertaking executive action where interventions could have been undertaken.
  2. It highlights inaction can apply not just to ‘the government’ but also to a variety of public organisations and policy networks.
  3. It focuses on inaction that is meaningful in a particular policy context because it emphasises a problem within the remit of policymakers.
  4. The term ‘potential’ recognises what falls within a particular authority’s jurisdiction can be a matter of ambiguity and dispute.

Types of inaction

There are five types of policy inaction:

1. Calculated inaction

Inaction can be deliberate, strategic and tactical. There may be a danger of rushing in before an issue has sufficiently matured. At times it may be better for decision makers to wait for more evidence, while buying time to gauge how ‘hot ‘the issue is liable to be.

Drivers: Inaction as product of conscious (strategic or tactical) decisions no to act, or not to act now

Plausible alternatives: Managed off the agenda


  • Waiting for issue to ‘ripen’ until it can be addressed
  • Doing nothing to avoid compromising other goals
  • Costs of acting exceed perceived benefits

2. Ideological inaction

Ideology and values can shape purposeful inaction. Ideological stances about the role of the state versus other mechanisms of public problem-solving may play a role in limiting the scope of government intervention.

Drivers: Inaction driven by convictions

Plausible alternatives: Ideologically out of bounds


  • Not acknowledging moral, social or political imperatives to address a particular issue
  • Relying on markets, community sector, or citizens’ self-organisation to address the issues

3. Imposed inaction

Inaction can stem from realising that political powers, institutional realities and checks and balances mean ‘taking action’ is not feasible.

Drivers: Inaction as pragmatic acceptance that requisite support will not be obtained from powerful actors or pivotal institutions.

Plausible alternatives: Will not gain support to be approved


  • De factor veto powers and agenda denial strategies exercised by political and/or societal actors
  • Policy paralysis through stalemates in formal decision-making bodies or among partners needed for a coordinated effort

4. Reluctant inaction

Inaction occurs when viable policy options, tools and resources to address a particular issue are not available. It may be that policymakers have few or no practical levers at their disposal to address the problem in hand.

Drivers: Inaction through reluctant acceptance that appropriate tools and resources are not available

Plausible alternatives: Not capable of being put into practice


  • Absolute or relative lack of financial resources to fund effective policies
  • Lack of policy instruments that are demonstrably effective in ameliorating the problem at hand
  • Bureaucratic ‘red tape’ is a barrier to feasibility

5. Inadvertent inaction

Inaction can spring from policymakers’ cognitive processes.

Drivers: Inaction as a product of bounded rationality constraints and institutional blind spots

Plausible alternatives: Nowhere to be seen within frame of reference.


  • Agency hierarchy watering down unpleasant realities for senior policymakers
  • Failures of boundary scanning, horizon scanning and early warning routines

Policy-making domains

There are four distinct but overlapping domains of policy-making: individuals; organisations; governments; and networks. Particular types of mechanisms contribute to inaction in each of these realms. Policy inaction is most likely to occur and persevere when these domains and mechanisms overlap and reinforce one another.

1. Individual-driven inaction

Individual behaviours which bring about inaction include:

  • Shifting responsibility (‘buck passing’) for taking a decision or acting on a signal to other people, departments or organisations.
  • Bolstering decisions already taken in the past by rationalising away the need to reconsider them.
  • Procrastination and continued indecision while searching for more information, engaging in further deliberation or determining to defer the making of a decision.

2. Public organisation-driven inaction

Gathering, receiving, interpreting, creating, communicating and disseminating information is at the heart of the work that public organisations do. How they process information determines how they act and whether they act.

Hierarchy is conducive to concealment and misrepresentation of relevant issues; centralisation can produce out-of-touch and overloaded leaders who do not have enough information, interest or capacity to assess what is relevant, and specialisation cultivates a culture of turf wars and lack of information sharing.

3. Government-driven inaction

High aspirations, popular mandates and governments ‘doing stuff’ are embedded in the fabric of liberal democracies. However, the actual business of governing necessitates continual, dogged policy inaction, and avoiding multiple plausible alternatives. The pragmatic demands of governing means that inaction is also a coping mechanism. Governments have limited attention spans and do not have the time or space to provide equal and sustained attention to all issues.

4. Network-driven inaction

Many policy problems and policy solutions straddle traditional geographical, institutional, sectoral and jurisdictional boundaries. In response, joined-up government, networked and collaborative governance mechanisms have emerged.

The design of networks and the behaviour of their participants can actively contribute to not delivering on their purpose. When operating under adverse circumstances or when not productive, networks reproduce and succumb to the very coordination problems they were built to address.

What this means

In public policy, inaction is just as real as action. We need to understand how:

  • avenues of problem inquiry get closed off
  • the range of policy options that are considered get narrowed
  • soft and critical voices in public policy conversations go unheard
  • non-acting gets institutionalised and legitimised.

Want to read more?

Inaction and public policy: understanding why policymakers ‘do nothing’ – Allan McConnell and Paul ’t Hart, Policy Sciences, December 2019, Volume 52, Issue 4, pp 645–661.

This brief is part of a Research Series written by Maria Katsonis. This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG’s 2019 Research Series called The Drop.

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Published Date: 27 November 2019