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What Counts as Policy Failure — And Why it Matters

When things go wrong in politics, the word ‘failure’ gets bandied around a lot. In recent weeks, we’ve heard about the failure of Canadian drug policy (as admitted by Stephen Harper), the failure of Canadian diplomatic efforts to get Barack Obama on board for the Keystone XL Pipeline (as declared by his critics), and the failure of European leaders and the ‘troika’ to find a long term solution to the problems posed by the Greek economy (as acknowledged by most sensible commentators).

These declarations of failure, of course, are not uncontested. In each case, there are those who would challenge the label of failure altogether, and others who would lay the responsibility for failure on different shoulders. Labeling something a failure is a political act: it involves not just identifying something as a problem, but also suggesting that someone in particular has failed. These debates about failures are crucial ways in which we assess responsibility for the things that go wrong in political and economic policy.

Debates about how we define and recognize success and failure can be crucial turning points in public policy.

The most interesting debates about policy failure, however, occur when what’s at stake is what counts as failure itself.

When we say that something or someone, has failed, we are using a particular metric of success and failure. Formal exams provide the clearest example of assessment according to a scale of passing and failing grades. In most cases, such metrics are taken for granted. (Even if some students might not agree that my grading scale is fair, I am generally very confident when I fail a student.) But sometimes, if a failure is serious enough, or if failures are repeated over and over, those metrics themselves come into question. (I did once bump all the exam grades up by five percent in a course because they were so out of line with the students’ overall performance.)

In politics, these contested failures force both policymakers and the wider community to re-examine not just the policy problems themselves but also the measures that they use to evaluate and interpret them. These moments of debate are very important. They are very technical, focusing on the nuts and bolts of evaluation and assessment. Yet they are also fundamental, since they force us to ask both what we want success to look like and to what extent we can really know when we’ve found it.

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In my recent book, Governing Failure, I trace the central role of this kind of contested failure in one particular area: the governance of international development policy. Policy failures such as the persistence of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Asian financial crisis and the AIDS crisis raised very serious questions about the effectiveness of the ‘Washington Consensus’, and ultimately led aid organizations ranging from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the (then) Canadian International Development Agency to question and reassess their policies.

The ‘aid effectiveness’ debates of 1990s and 2000s emerged out of these contested failures, as key policymakers and critics questioned past definitions of success and failure and sought to develop a new understanding of what makes aid work or fail. In the process, they shifted away from a narrowly economic conception of success and failure towards one that saw institutional and other broader political reforms as crucial to program success.

International development is not the only area in which we have seen a significant set of failures precipitate this kind of debate about the meaning of success and failure itself. The 2008 financial crisis was also seen by many as a spectacular failure. The crisis produced wide-ranging debates not just about who was to blame, but also about how it was possible for domestic and international policymakers and market actors to get things so wrong that they were predicting continued success even as the global economy was headed towards massive failure.

In the aftermath of that crisis, there was a striking amount of public interest in the basic metrics underpinning the financial system. People started asking just how risks were evaluated and managed and how credit rating agencies arrived at the ratings that had proven to be so misleading. In short, they wanted to understand how the system measured success and failure. Many of the most promising efforts to respond to the crisis—such as attempts to measure and manage systemic risk—are also aimed at developing better ways of evaluating what’s is and isn’t working in the global economy, defining success in more complex ways.


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Of course, not every failure is a contested one. Many have argued that the reasons for the failure of Canadian drug policy are less contested than Harper has suggested. Critics note that the Conservative government’s unwillingness to take on board the lessons of innovative policies such as safe injection sites goes a long way towards explaining this policy failure.

On the other hand, some failures—such as the failure not just of Greece but also of much of Europe to restart their economies—should be more contested than they currently are. The International Monetary Fund did begin opening up this kind of deeper discussion when its internal review of its early interventions in Greece suggested that the organization had been too quick to promote austerity. Yet the narrow terms of the troika’s conversations about the future of Greece suggests that there is an awful lot of room for more creative thinking about the path towards policy success, not just in Europe but around the world.

These kinds of debates about how we define and recognize success and failure can be crucial turning points in public policy. They force us, at least for a moment, to set aside some of our easy assumptions about what works and what doesn’t, and to ask ourselves what we really mean by success.

Jacqueline Best’s new book, Governing Failure: Provisional Expertise and the Transformation of International Development Finance, will be launched Thursday, March 12 at 4:00 pm in the Social Sciences Building, Room 4004 at the University of Ottawa.

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