failure or success

Defining policy failure in the Australian public service

Policy failures reduce public trust in Australia’s Public Service, so what does policy success look like?

There is a history of perceived and actual high-profile policy failures in Australia over the past decade. It’s an easy list to rattle off: the Home Insulation Program(HIP), the National Broadband Network (NBN), the 2016 eCensus, the ongoing CentreLink robo-debt scandal and it goes on.

These fiascos not only create massive problems for the people they directly affect, they also dramatically reduce public trust in the capacity of the Australian Public Service (APS) to do its job.

In turn, this loss of reputation and credibility severely impacts public servants themselves. The end result is a demotivated public service, averse to risk-taking and, ironically, more prone to future failures.


These failures highlight a paradox at the heart of the APS – Australia is known for its public-sector excellence, so how do we explain our recent experience of policy failure?

In the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) 2017, published by Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, Australia ranks equal third best with the UK, behind Canada and New Zealand. While our Australian competitive spirit might baulk at coming in bronze, this success speaks to a high level of effectiveness and most importantly consistency in our public service.

Reform of Australia’s tax and financial architecture, road safety initiatives and Medicare exemplify successful and longstanding Australian policy programs that have improved life at home and abroad.

So are these failures a blip, or is there some deeper decline happening and, if so, how do we address it?

Commentators suggest several pieces to the broader puzzle of failure. Some, like Patrick Weller, Professor Emeritus in the School of Government and International Relations at Queensland’s Griffith University, suggest there’s now a decline in senior public service mandarins showing leadership in the bureaucratic corridors of power. The capacity for long-lasting, bipartisan reforms has perhaps been lost, having a subsequent impact on our public service.

Or has failure always been part of our landscape and we have a ‘Camelot’ view of the past?

In 1988, public servant Nugget Coombs was named Australian of the century. Who, today, could even name a departmental Secretary?

Other critics speak of a decline in policy ideas. The post-WWII period of inspired ideas and nation building seems absent, no longer viable today. The Chancellor of Western Sydney University Peter Shergold’s assessment of the pink batts tragedysuggests failure is partly attributable to poor risk management. Public service culture needs a more nuanced and far-reaching appreciation of positive risk taking.


In our research for The Australian Policy Handbook, we have studied cases of policy success and failure. What we noticed in our most recent edition is that the spoils of policy success are attributed to government whereas policy failure gets associated with the public service.

Public service culture needs a more nuanced and far-reaching appreciation of positive risk taking. Picture: iStock

Some level of failure is unavoidable in policy making. Societies are complex, and large-scale road testing of programs is not always possible. Nevertheless, the public service can minimise the potential for such failures in future. Our firm belief is that good policy is built on good process.

Sound, evidence-based policy making incorporates elements of a policy cycle. Just like a traveller uses a map to make their way through London or Berlin. While a city map is not drawn to scale, it illustrates a framework to guide you from point A to point B.

But following process does not guarantee success. Reality almost always arcs away from an ideal model. Nevertheless, failure in examples like the HIP, NBN or eCensus can be traced to deviations from one or more stages and routines set out in the policy cycle. Checklists and procedures embedded in a robust framework have a potential to help us recognise how not to make the same mistakes in future.


If a policy cycle can help us avoid failure, can it help us answer a more difficult question: what does policy success look like?

Gus O’Donnell, former Secretary to the UK Cabinet, believes he has the answer. Public servants must remain objective and accountable, clearly understand the outcomes they seek, and always honour evidence. Importantly, they should understand the politics of the day—policy making doesn’t happen in a vacuum—and keep a focus on what the real impact is on people’s lives. Sir Gus argues it is also critical that public servants remain aware of, and committed to, the privilege to serve the nation.

In the Handbook we state “a policy process is best if systematic, widely consultative and nurtured in an organisation with the patience and skills to test ideas, implement them with care, and evaluate with an eye to further development – which sounds rather like a policy cycle”.

But is policy failure inevitable? And are we in denial about its value? Is there an acceptable kind of failure that promotes learning and helps generate future success?

The private sector views failure very differently to the public sector, and there may be something we can learn from that approach.

These questions might lead us towards a national policy conversation that is less about blame and more about understanding. This will not only help placate a media keen to condemn failure, but also promote depth in internal policy learning. Too often today there is little room for reflection and a change of direction.

The public sector can probably learn from some of the approaches in the private sector. Picture: iStock

Canadian academic Donald Savoie talks about the public service bargain as a way of capturing the dynamic relationship that exists between the executive and the public service, and a way of reconciling their different cultures and priorities. This is further complicated with the rise of ministerial advisers, challenging the traditional monopoly of public service advice.

Professor Savoie believes the bargain was broken in 2003, and is in need of recalibration. To meet current challenges, shifting to a new public service bargain may indeed promote better governance outcomes.

To assist in this recalibration, the public service should continue to turn a critical eye on itself. Tension between government and the public service naturally arises with the rhythm of election cycles—new administrations must come to trust their apolitical assistants.

Managing this tension requires the public service to be strategic with a high dose of political nous, asking challenging questions of its own work and its role in policy making.

And this means paying attention to both success and failure.

With such a considered approach to policy learning, the APS can reclaim its respected position in the public consciousness and become once more a trusted party in the policy making process. It can prove itself astute to the realities of politics but known for frank and fearless advice.

If we want to rise two steps up the Blavatnik Index and go for gold, we must pay heed to yesterday’s lessons—to prevent tomorrow’s avoidable failures.

Source: Defining policy failure in the Australian public service | Pursuit by The University of Melbourne

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