Forget blunders – here’s what we can learn from great policy successes

Mallory Compton and Paul ’t Hart argue that knowing what went wrong in the past doesn’t always help governments get things right in the future

Women mark International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the anniversary of the signing of the Montreal Protocol. Photo: Xinhua/Veri Sanovri

It’s easy to get the impression that governments are incompetent, slow, inefficient, unresponsive to ordinary citizens’ needs, and prone to overreach and underdeliver – particularly with Brexit as the public’s main measure of competence.

But most of the time, the bulk of public projects, programmes and services don’t perform badly at all. Sometimes they do spectacularly well. Sadly, these cases rarely receive attention.

Looking at the negative doesn’t always help us understand the possible. In policymaking, and as citizens, we hone in on failure, not on the possibilities that could lie ahead, and we don’t value learning from success. Instead, media, political and academic debate are saturated with accounts of policy failures.


This institutionalised focus on endemic failure risks producing a “learned myopia” in how we observe, debate, and assess our systems of governance. As public policy researchers, we need to shift the focus. We need to transform how we teach, research and discuss policymaking – by seeking to learn as much from positive outcomes as we do from failures. In Great Policy Successes, we do this through 15 case studies of standout public policy accomplishments across a range of countries, sectors and challenges that experts and academics highlighted.

Examples include Brazil’s Bolsa Família cash transfer scheme, built to lift millions out of extreme poverty; Norway’s Petroleum Fund, which has channelled national oil revenues into what has become the world’s biggest national pension fund; the Montreal Protocol global regulatory regime, which has helped the ozone layer recover from decades’ worth of damage; and the UK’s work to frame tobacco as a health concern to build support for the initially unpopular smoking ban.

Each case study in our book is accompanied by a Centre for Public Impact analysis using their Public Impact Fundamentals framework.

We need to learn what worked and why

Studying cases of failure can help us diagnose the causes of policy shortcomings. Studying great policy achievements allows us to identify the circumstances conducive to success. The cases in our book illuminate not only what worked but also why. CPI’s work in helping governments understand how to achieve public impact has demonstrated the value of this approach.

One lesson is that pacing the work of change is a fine art. In many cases, success followed extensive consultation, bargaining, and negotiation over many years. Copenhagen’s highly successful urban planning regime has evolved over half a century, for example, while the revitalisation of Melbourne took shape over two decades. Both were iterative processes.

“Talking about what went wrong and dressing up evidence about what will work better is appealing and even vote-winning, but it is rarely a good idea”

Secondly, strategic politicisation and top-down leadership can help – sometimes. Former prime minister Tony Blair’s public commitment and personal resolve to reduce NHS waiting times is an example of the politicisation of the status quo in a policy domain providing momentum for change. But top-down political willpower isn’t always enough. Faced with the existential challenge of how to ensure there is still a country left to inhabit if sea levels rise and the rivers swell, the Dutch government turned depoliticisation into an art form. It empowered a studiously apolitical authority to operate as a “consensus architect” to tap local knowledge and forge broad support for smart and pragmatic solutions.

Thirdly, many cases made judicious use of inclusive and exclusive participation strategies. In consensual democracies such as Denmark and the Netherlands, inclusive consultation, deliberation and codesign is second nature to policymakers and offers a reliable solution to what could easily become political deadlock. CPI and Engage Britain’s new report Tackling Challenges Together will have more on this. But even in less consultative political systems, such as Australia’s, it was the incorporation of grassroots voices and initiatives the policy mix that drove Melbourne’s regeneration success. By contrast, New Zealand’s remarkable economic turnaround in the mid-1980s and early 1990s was engineered by a relatively closed circle of politicians and Treasury bureaucrats, working in what was a strictly majoritarian and unicameral political system.

Tipping the odds in your favour  

So what increases the odds of success? Some point to one-size-fits-all solutions such as “evidence-based policy”, “behavioural economics” or codesign. But they should think again. Our study demonstrates that there are many different pathways to successful public policy, including: a confluence of seemingly disparate initiatives across different domains; alliances between strange bedfellows; or knowing when to push forward and when to wait. The challenge is to sort out what combinations of design practices, political strategies and institutional arrangements are both effective and appropriate in context – because we’ve seen that there is no “best way”.

Talking about what went wrong and dressing up evidence about what will work better is appealing and even vote-winning, but it is rarely a good idea. And with institutional memory and nuance becoming things of the past, these case studies demonstrate that focusing on failures at the expense of understanding successes will, in the end, not bring us the imaginative and smart governments we so badly need. 

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