Success and failure in policy and how to fail forward with flair

Renee Leon
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How can we define policy success? In this article, IPAA Queensland highlightings the complexities and frameworks in evaluating public policy outcomes. 

“What matters is what works” – Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.

But – how do we know when a policy has been a success or a failure that needs correction?  

This is an important question for all public servants to ask as they formulate policy advice, design policy solutions, and plan implementation in support of government policy agendas.  It is a question loaded with complexity, just as the nature of public administration itself is filled with complexity. 


So – how is successful policy defined in academic literature? 

According to leading expert Professor Emeritus Allan McConnell at the University of Sydney, the overall logic of success in policy stems from good design, redresses power imbalances, reduces inequalities and involves stakeholders in policy formulation and evaluation (2010).  

The assumption lies that policy-making activity results from well-intentioned efforts on the part of the public service to address social, economic, environmental, and other kinds of wicked problems in the pursuit of public value with the view that some policies benefit certain groups more than others (Moore, 1995 as cited in Leong & Howlett, 2022, Marsh & McConnell, 2010) – which is a premise and sentiment that undoubtedly public service professionals agree with.  

“A policy is deemed successful in its fullest definition if it achieves goals that proponents set out to achieve, attracts no criticism of any significance and support for said policy is largely universal” (McConnell, 2010).


Are there frameworks that support this definition?

To a degree – yes.

There are a few frameworks that can be used to define and determine success and failure in policy.  And while not all are universally accepted, nor applicable in all policy contexts, they do provide a baseline for understanding the criteria to consider when evaluating policy in terms of success and failure and provide context for those in the public sector through to apply to their own ‘test and learn’ activities moving forward.


What does this framework look like? 

Intuitively, we know that the goal of achieving policy success is rarely met in its complete form (McConnell, 2010). 

There are likely to be fault lines and weaknesses in almost every policy released into a jurisdiction, and they are generally reviewed in terms of process, program and political dimensions.

Process – is concerned with understanding the means by which societies could and should make collective choices in the public interest.

Process success rests primarily on the preservation and execution of a government’s policy goals and instruments.

Program – are ultimately what governments exist to do – introduce and implement programs that align to intentions and statements.

Program success occurs if the measure executed produces the results desired by government.

Politics – As public servants, we need to recognize that programs have political repercussions.  The choices of government inevitably have consequences to the reputation of elected officials.

An outcome of political success from policy is that the instrument enhances the reputation of the government, its leaders and its electoral prospects.  The policy has forged a positive political impact.

There are other considerations to keep in mind when reviewing a policy for success that go beyond the process, the program or the politics.  And these are:

Complexity – Who has achieved success here?  As public servants we cater to the whole community, and some policies will lean towards favouring some community members more than others, so ‘success’ will generally be contested and experienced differently between and across stakeholders.

Time – As highlighted by Marsh and McConnell, there is a temporal dimension involved when evaluating a policy in terms of success and failure.  Any assessment across the process, program or politics dimensions must be done via reviewing it in short-term or longer-term frames.

Information – Is there sufficient and credible information to assess the extent of success?

Policy isolation – To what degree are public servants able to determine the impact of a policy separate to other policies in its orbit?

Conflict and ambiguities – Are there significant conflicts or ambiguities that may influence a public servants ability to evaluate a policy’s success or failure?

To see the full framework, peruse Marsh and McConnell’s policy success framework (Marsh and McConnell 2010, p. 571)


But – what is failure in a public policy context?

Essentially, failure is the mirror image of success.  

As highlighted by McConnell, a policy fails if it does not achieve the goals that proponents set out to achieve, if opposition to the policy is great and/or support is virtually non-existent.  

Policy failure occurs when the government is defeated in its ambition to enact legislation or make a decision.

In public policy, failure can also take many forms.  

Success in the process dimension does not necessarily confirm success within the program or political dimensions…in some contexts political success necessitates that a program can leave a little to be desired in terms of tackling social or economic problems.  This is a key tension in the profession of public service.

Additionally, programs which produce the right results and are deemed successful in terms of achieving a desired outcome, may not always produce political success.

There are examples globally of where too much success can be achieved.  There are several examples where policies have been developed and approved quickly, achieved sound political success, but been minimally successful at the program dimension in terms of achieving its objectives…the examples and iterations of how policies can be evaluated as successful or not are nearly endless. 

Finally, we must be mindful that a focus on failure may have important political consequences, and while it is important to recognise failures so that as public servants we can continue to improve how we design and deliver programs to our communities, we need to establish criteria so that we can evaluate effectively and ensure that the broader impacts of policy failure are considered.

It is a delicate balance. And in the end, success and failure are not mutually exclusive.

As public servants, we all have a responsibility to endeavor to support and enable success of government policies and programs.  But, while appreciating that this is a difficult and complex goal to achieve, we can be mindful of the failures when they occur, and endeavor to remedy them through continuous improvement measures.

After all – the community relies on us to do so.



Leong, C., & Howlett, M. (2022). Policy Learning, Policy Failure, and the Mitigation of Policy Risks: Re-Thinking the Lessons of Policy Success and Failure. Administration & Society, 54(7), 1379–1401. 

Marsh, D., & McConnell, A. (2010). Towards a framework for establishing policy success. Public Administration (London), 88(2), 564–583. 

McConnell, A. (2010). Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between. Journal of Public Policy, 30(3), 345–362.