Successful Failure in Public Policy Work


It matters if public policies succeed in solving societal problems, but a dominant narrative holds that policies fail ‘often’. A large-sample study discussed in this paper suggests that this is not accurate, however. The most common policy result in this study is more ambiguous—what I call ‘successful failure’. Such result is achieved when a policy delivers enough low-level, short-term product to promise success, but ultimately (and repeatedly) fails to contribute to sustained high-level, long-term impact (addressing the problems citizens care about). Such ‘successful failure’ is endemic to public policy work, and a more pernicious result than outright failure: It allows policy design and implementation actors to associate with incomplete near-run success but insulate themselves from future failure (which they blame on factors and actors beyond their control) and simultaneously enjoy repeated demand for work (because problems are never really solved).

CID Faculty Working Paper Series: 402