Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-5zjcf Total loading time: 0.405 Render date: 2022-08-17T21:57:24.493Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue false

Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2010

School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
Address for Correspondence Professor Allan McConnell Department of Government and International Relations University of Sydney Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia e-mail:


Policy protagonists are keen to claim that policy is successful while opponents are more likely to frame policies as failures. The reality is that policy outcomes are often somewhere in between these extremes. An added difficulty is that policy has multiple dimensions, often succeeding in some respects but not in others, according to facts and their interpretation. This paper sets out a framework designed to capture the bundles of outcomes that indicate how successful or unsuccessful a policy has been. It reviews existing literature on policy evaluation and improvement, public value, good practice, political strategy and policy failure and success in order to identify what can be built on and gaps that need to be filled. It conceives policy as having three realms: processes, programs and politics. Policies may succeed and/or fail in each of these and along a spectrum of success, resilient success, conflicted success, precarious success and failure. It concludes by examining contradictions between different forms of success, including what is known colloquially as good politics but bad policy.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Althaus, C., Bridgman, P. and Davis, G. (2007) The Australian policy handbook. 4th Edition, Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
Amnesty International (2008) State of denial: Europe's role in rendition and secret detention. London: Amnesty International.Google Scholar
Auerswald, P. E., Branscomb, L. M., La Porte, T. M. and Michel-Kerjan, E. O. (eds.) (2007) Seeds of disaster, roots of response: How private action can reduce public vulnerability. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Bachrach, P. and Baratz, M. (1970) Power and poverty: Theory and practice. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Bardach, E. (2009) A practical guide for policy analysis: The eightfold path to more effective problem solving. 3rd Edition, Washington, DC: CQ Press.Google Scholar
Bell, S. and Hindmoor, A. (2009) Rethinking governance: The centrality of the state in modern society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bishop, P. and Davis, G. (2002) Mapping public participation in policy choices. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 61(1): 1429.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boin, A., 't Hart, P., Stern, E. and Sundelius, B. (2005) The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bovens, M. (2010) A comment on Marsh and McConnell: Towards a framework for understanding policy success, Public Administration, 88(2): 584585.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bovens, M. and 't Hart, P. (1996) Understanding policy fiascoes. New Brunswick, Transaction.Google Scholar
Bovens, M., 't Hart, P. and Peters, B. G. (eds.) (2001a) Success and failure in public governance: A comparative analysis. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bovens, M., 't Hart, P. and Peters, B. G. (2001b) Analysing governance success and failure in six european states. In Bovens, M., 't Hart, P. and Peters, B. G. (eds.), Success and failure in public governance: A comparative analysis. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bovens, M., 't Hart, P., Peters, B. G., Albæk, E., Busch, A., Dudley, G., Moran, M. and Richardson, J. (2001c) Patterns of governance: Sectoral and national comparisons. in Bovens, M., 't Hart, P. and Peters, B. G. (eds.), Success and failure in public governance: A comparative analysis. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 593640.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boyne, G. A. (2003) What is public sector improvement? Public Administration, 81(2): 211227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boyne, G. A. (2004) Explaining public service improvement: Does management matter? Public Policy and Administration, 19(4): 100117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Braybrooke, D. and Lindblom, C. E. (1970) A strategy of decision: Policy evaluation as social process. New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
Butler, D., Adonis, A. and Travers, T. (1994) Failure in British government: The politics of the poll tax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Carson, L. and Martin, B. (1999) Random selection in politics. Westport, CT: Praeger.Google Scholar
Committee on Foreign Affairs (2007) Extraordinary rendition in US counterterrorism policy: The impact on transatlantic relations. Joint hearing before the subcommittee on international organizations, human rights, and oversight and the subcommittee on europe of the committee on foreign affairs. House of Representatives: Washington, DC.Google Scholar
Crick, B. (1962) In defence of politics. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Google Scholar
Davidson, E. J. (2005) Evaluation methodology basics: The nuts and bolts of sound evaluation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunleavy, P. (1995) Policy disasters: Explaining the UK's record. Public Policy and Administration, 10(2): 5270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dye, T. R. (2005) Understanding public policy. 11th edition, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
Easton, D. (1953) The political system. New York, NY: Knopf.Google Scholar
Easton, D. (1965) A systems analysis of political life. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
Edelman (1977) Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail. New York, NY: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Edelman, M. (1988) Constructing the political spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Fischer, F. (1995) Evaluating public policy. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall Publishers.Google Scholar
Fischer, F. (2003) Reframing public policy: Discursive politics and deliberative practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gastil, J. (2008) Political communication and deliberation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldfinch, S. (2006) Rituals of reform, policy transfer, and the national university corporation reforms of Japan. Governance, 19(4): 585604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gupta, D. and Sathye, M. (2009) Turnaround of the Indian railways: a public ownership saga. International Journal of Public Policy, 5(1): 86102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gupta, D. K. (2001) Analyzing public policy: Concepts, tools, and techniques, Washington, DC: CQ Press.Google Scholar
Gutmann, A. and Thompson, D. (2004) Why deliberative democracy? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, P. G. (1982) Great planning disasters. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Handmer, J. and Dovers, S. (2007) Handbook of disaster and emergency policies and institutions. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
Harlow, C. (2002) Accountability, new public management, and the problems of the child support agency. Journal of Law and Society, 26(2): 150174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Head, B. W. (2008) Wicked problems in public policy. Public Policy 3(2): 101118.Google Scholar
Hood, C. C. and Margetts, H. Z. (2007) The tools of government in the digital age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howlett, M. (2010 forthcoming). Designing public policies: Principles and instruments. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
Hulme, D. and Moore, K. (2007) Why has microfinance been a policy success in Bangladesh? in Development success: Statecraft in the south (ed.) Bebbington, A. and McCourt, W.105139. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ingram, H.M., and. Mann, D.E (eds.) (1980) Why policies succeed or fail. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
Kerr, D. H. (1976) The logic of “policy” and successful policies. Policy Sciences, 7(3): 351363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lasswell, H. D. (1956) The decision process. College Park, MD: University of Maryland Press.Google Scholar
Lasswell, H. D. (1971) A pre-view of policy sciences. New York, NY: American Elsevier.Google Scholar
Lindblom, C. E. (1965) The intelligence of democracy. New York, NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
LindblomC., E C., E (1959) The science of “muddling through”. Public Administration Review, XIX(2): 7988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Machiavelli, N. (1961) The prince. Middlesex: Penguin.Google Scholar
Marsh, D. and McConnell, A. (2010a) Towards a framework for establishing policy success. Public Administration, 88(2): 586587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Marsh, D. and McConnell, A. (2010b) Towards a framework for establishing policy success: A reply to Bovens. Public Administration 88(2): 564583.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
May, P. J., Sapotichne, J. and Workman, S. (2009) Widespread policy disruption: Terrorism, public risks, and homeland security. Policy Studies Journal 37(2): 171194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McConnell, A. (2010) Understanding policy success: Rethinking public policy. BasingstokePalgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McEntire, D. A. (2007) Disaster response and recovery. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
Miller, G. J. and Robbins, D. (2007) Cost-Benefit Analysis. in Handbook of public policy analysis: Theory, politics, and methods. Fischer, F., Miller, G. J. and Sidney, M. S.. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. 465480.Google Scholar
Mintrom, M. (2003) People skills for policy analysts. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
Moore, M. H. (1995) Creating public value: Strategic management in government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Nagel, S. (1980) Series editor's introduction. in Ingram, H. M. and Mann, D. E. (eds.), Why policies succeed or fail. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 710.Google Scholar
O'Neill, M. K. and Primus, W. E. (2005) Recent data trends show welfare reform to be a mixed success: Significant policy changes should accompany reauthorization. Review of Policy Research, 22(3): 301324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Osborne, S. P. (ed.) (2009) The new public governance? Emerging perspectives on the theory and practice of public governance. Routledge: Abingdon.Google Scholar
Patashnik, E. M. (2008) Reforms at risk: What happens after major policy changes are enacted? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Pawson, R. (2006) Evidence-based policy: A realist perspective. London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pollack, H. (2007) Learning to walk slow: America's partial policy success in the arena of intellectual disability. Journal of Policy History, 19(1): 95112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reason, J. (1997) Managing the risks of organizational accidents. Aldershot, Ashgate.Google Scholar
Rhodes, R. A. A. and Wanna, J. (2007) The limits to public value, or rescuing responsible government from the platonic guardians. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 66(4): 406421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rhodes, R. A. A. and Wanna, J. (2008) Stairways to heaven: A reply to Alford. Australia Journal of Public Administration, 67(3): 367370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rhodes, R. A. A. and Wanna, J. (2009) Bringing the politics back in Public value in Westminster parliamentary government. Public Administration, 87(2): 161183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rittel, H. W. W. and Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2): 155169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rose, Richard (1984) Understanding big government. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
Sanderson, I. (2002) Evaluation, policy learning and evidence-based policy making. Public Administration, 80(1): 122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schneider, A. L. and Ingram, H. (1997) Policy design for democracy. Kansas: University Press of Kansas.Google Scholar
Schön, D. A. and Rein, M. (1994) Frame reflection: Toward the resolution of intractable policy controversies. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Schwartz, H. (2006) Explaining Australian economic success: Good policy or good luck? Governance, 19(2): 173205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shapiro, I. (1999) Enough of deliberation: Politics is about interest and power. in Macedo, S. (ed.), Deliberative Politics. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2838.Google Scholar
Steenhuisen, B. and van Eeten, M. (2008) Invisible trade-offs of public values: Inside Dutch railways. Public Money & Management, 28(3): 147152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stoker, G. (2006) Why politics matters: Making democracy work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
Stone, D. (2002) Policy paradox: The art of political decision making. 2nd edition, New York, NY: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
Stringer, J. K. and Richardson, J. J. (1979) Managing the political agenda: Problem definition and policy making in Britain. Parliamentary Affairs, 33(1): 2339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taylor, D. and Balloch, S. (ed.) (2005) The politics of evaluation: Participation and policy implementation. Bristol: The Policy Press.Google Scholar
Thompson, J. B. (2000) Political scandal: Power and visibility in the modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
Tiffen, R. (1999) Scandals, media, politics and corruption in contemporary Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press.Google Scholar
van Gestel, N., Koppenjan, J.Schrijver, I., van de Ven, A. and Veeneman, W. (2008) Managing public values in public-private networks: A comparative study of innovative public infrastructure projects. Public Money & Management, 28(3): 139145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weimer, D. L. and Vining, A. R. (2005) Policy analysis: Concepts and practice. 5th edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.Google Scholar
Wildavsky, A. (1987) Speaking truth to power: The art and craft of policy analysis. 2nd edition, New Brunswick: Transaction.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Policy Success, Policy Failure and Grey Areas In-Between
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *