A field guide to spotting policy successes in the wild

image representing success by hand arranging wood block stacking as step stair with arrow up.
  • Published Date: 17 September 2019

Like policy failures, policy successes are in the eye of the beholder. They are not mere facts but stories. To claim a public policy, program or project is a ‘success’ is effectively an act of interpretation. How can we identify and analyse examples of policy success? Where can we find case studies on successful policy making from around the world?

At a glance

Mallory Compton (Texas A&M University) and Paul ‘t Hart (Utrecht University) have edited a book which explores a series in-depth case study accounts of stand-out public policy accomplishments, across a range of countries, sectors, and challenges.

Their opening chapter is a field guide to spotting great policy successes in the real world so as to analyse how they came about and what might be learned from them. Achieving success entails two major tasks:

  • craft work: devising, adopting, and implementing programs and reforms that have a meaningful impact on the public issues giving rise to their existence.
  • political work: forming and maintaining coalitions of stakeholders to persuasively propagate these programs.

It also involves a temporal dimension with sustaining performance over time and adapting to changing circumstances.

How do we know a policy success when we see one?

Policy assessment is a multi-dimensional, multi-perspective and political process. This involves:

1. Programmatic assessment

This dimension reflects the focus of classic evaluation research on policy goals, the theory of change underpinning it and the selection of the policy instruments it deploys. This culminates in judgments about the degree to which a policy achieves valuable social impacts.

2. Process assessment

The focus here is on how the processes of policy design, decision-making and delivery are organised and managed. The issue is whether these processes contribute to both its technical problem-solving capacity (effectiveness and efficiency) and to its social appropriateness.

3. Political assessment

This dimension assesses the degree to which policymakers and agencies involved in driving and delivering the policy are able to build and maintain supportive political coalitions. It examines both the political requirements for policy success and the distribution of political costs/benefits among the actors involved in it.

4. Endurance assessment

The success or otherwise of a public policy, program or project should be assessed on how its performance and legitimacy develop over time. Contexts change and unintended consequences emerge. Robustly successful policies adapt to these dynamics through institutional learning and program (re) design and delivery. It also involves political astuteness in safeguarding supporting coalitions and maintaining public reputation and legitimacy.

A definition of a (‘great’) policy success

A policy is a complete success to the extent that:

  • It demonstrably creates widely valued social outcomes; through
  • design, decision-making, and delivery processes that enhance both its problem-solving capacity and its political legitimacy; and
  • sustains this performance for a considerable period of time, even in the face of changing circumstances.

Table 1 presents an assessment framework that integrates these building blocks.

Cases studies of great policy successesThe book profiles the following case studies of policy success:

1. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia scheme: how Brazil built the world’s largest conditional cash transfer scheme to lift millions out of extreme poverty.

2. Remarkable healthcare in Singapore: how policies have been continuously calibrated to adapt to new challenges while keeping costs low in Singapore.

3. Cutting waiting times in the NHS: how classic top-down political leadership and judicious policy analysis got Britain’s revered but monolithic National Health Service to process its millions of clients much quicker.

4. The transformation of UK tobacco control: how the UK designed and implemented innovative policies which framed tobacco as a health concern to successfully build support around the initially unpopular tobacco ban.

5. The GI Bill: how the United States provided social support to soldiers returning from WWII with the aim of provided macroeconomic insecurity and the unintended consequence of building social capital.

6. Finland’s education system: how a small nation on Europe’s northern periphery’s school system became a global brand in ‘how to do public education’.

7. Estonia’s digital transformation: how a post-communist state forged a global reputation as a leader in digital government.

8. The Alameda rail corridor project: how through balanced governance and creative financing arrangement a tangled web of rail lines was transformed into single corridor that relieved traffic congestion and reduced air and water pollution in the Los Angeles region.

9. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’: how the once staid and struggling state capital of Victoria, Australia transformed itself into a cosmopolitan metropolis.

10. The new Dutch Delta strategy: how a nation in which two-thirds of the population live beneath current sea level secures its future by reinventing its famed water management strategy so as to enable proactive and creative adaptation to the effects of climate change.

11. Copenhagen’s Five Finger Plan: how the Danish capital successfully avoided urban sprawl and overly dense and chaotic urbanisation through early adoption and sustained adaptation of a comprehensive urban planning regime.

12. Norway’s Petroleum Fund: how Norway’s policymakers purposefully dodged the bullet of the ‘resource curse’ and channelled its oil revenues into what has become the world’s biggest national pension fund.

13. New Zealand’s economic turnaround: how a country at the brink of economic collapse in the 1980s transformed its fortunes through one a radical, consistent and impactful suite of reform strategies.

14. Germany’s labour market reforms: how Europe’s biggest but notoriously rigid and sluggish post-reunification economy was lifted into the economic powerhouse it has since become.

15. The Montreal Protocol: How the world managed to negotiate and implement a global regulatory regime that helped the stratospheric ozone layer recover from the damage sustained by decades’ worth of ozone depleting substances.

Want to read more?

Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time. Mallory Compton and Paul ‘t Hart (eds), Oxford: Oxford University Press 2019.

This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.