Why policies fail

Kath Mackie

Given the increasing sophistication and diversity of theories on public policy, it seems reasonable to ask why policy failures continue to occur.  Some recent examples of federal environment policymaking offer fertile case studies to explore this question.

The Home Insulation Program is the first that springs to mind – it had the potential to bring down a government.  Over twelve months after it was terminated because of safety and fire risks, it is still used as a punching bag by the federal opposition party to attack the government.

The related program, Green Loans also comes to mind. It gave grief to the government, and there was a quiet phased exit from the policy of subsidising households to become more energy and water efficient.

Questions of ‘what works’ and ‘why does it work’ in policymaking are so broad as to be impossible to answer.  But they are important questions.

From an applied perspective, these questions are important. Environmental challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss require ever more urgent solutions as global population growth, resource use and economic growth escalate. From an academic perspective, public policy theorists continue to search for more compelling explanations of why some policies falter at the gritty implementation stage.  Policy and implementation failure are well-recognised gaps in the academic literature.

If we turn to implementation, what can we learn from some recent instances of failure?  In regard to the fated Home Insulation Program, the media had us believe the policy and program failed because of the weaknesses and incompetence on the part of Minister Garrett, the federal Labor government, and the administrators.

Stepping back from the media and performance audit explanations, I propose two primary explanations for the failure of the policy underlying the Home Insulation Program.

The environment policy objective was to insulate homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Yet, the primary driver for the program was the government’s desire to stimulate the economy to avoid the worst of the global financial crisis in Australia. This was the reason the program was on the government’s policy agenda, and the reason it received such an inordinate level of funding. The environment policy of improving the energy efficiency of the housing stock to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was a second order consideration.

Secondly, at the policy design stage, sensible design features such as a longer timeframe for delivery and a greater contribution from households to the cost were set aside as they confounded the objective of a rapid injection of funds to the economy. As the then Treasurer was reported to say “go early, go hard, go households”.

Sure, there were serious implementation failures.  These included a failure by some program managers in key roles to take advice on how to implement a program of that scale; a failure to allocate effort to priority tasks; a culture of avoiding sending bad news up the line; poor staffing strategies (the wrong people in the wrong place); inadequate corporate systems and clouded accountability.  But the seeds of policy failure were set at the policy origin and design stages.

Like the Home Insulation Program, the Green Loans program was terminated.  While the Home Insulation Program insulated over one million houses and created work for many small installer businesses, the policy objective of the Green Loans program was, by and large, not met.

Yet this was not a stimulus package program and failure cannot be explained in terms of the mixed or unclear objectives and an overly hasty rollout.  The origin of the program is thought to rest with a concept developed at the Ministerial level.  There was limited support in the bureaucracy for such a program.  It was seen as a fiddly program with no clear line of sight between the expenditure and the policy objective.

The commitment to such a program by the then Minister meant that some of the shaping by ‘policy actors’ (officials and stakeholders) that occurs to a policy idea before it breaks through to the government’s policy agenda was largely absent.

At the policy design stage, there was limited attention given to the detail of the program design. This was in part because it was administered for over 18 months by the same branch that was responsible for the Home Insulation Program.  Understandably, the Home Insulation Program vacuumed up the bulk of the management oversight.

The terminal design flaws in the Green Loans program occurred during that period.  These included a ‘mickey mouse’ home assessment report, a lack of control of the number of green loans provided leading to the risk of a serious budget blow-out, and a mismatch between the number of assessors and the work available under the limited program funds.

Whether a policy succeeds or fails, including at the program implementation stage, is partly a value judgment, that depends on one’s breadth of perspective.

For example, a narrow reading of the annual reports to parliament by the department with carriage of federal environment policy and programs gives a comforting sense that ‘deliverables’ and ‘key performance targets’ are in the main met.

On the other hand, a broad reading of the series of federal State of the Environment reports from 1996, 2001 and 2006 confirms that energy use continues apace and biodiversity continues to be in serious decline in many parts of Australia.

So why does policy fail?  In the environment policy arena, this initial foray suggests that a fertile locus for investigation may be the policy origins (how policies get on a government’s agenda in the first place) and policy design stages of the famed ‘policy cycle’.

Without venturing into the conspiracy theory camp, one almost needs to examine whether there is ‘policy failure by design’.  That is, cases of policy making where a government wishes to act for electoral or other reasons but doesn’t in actuality want to upset the economic apple cart. Here, environmental policies such as national forest policy, efforts to stop commercial and ‘scientific’ whaling and policies to reduce the use of plastic bags come to mind.

This is a longer conversation. We do need to at least start asking why are some of our environment policies failing us so?  Discipline and integrity at the policy emergence and policy design stages may give some clues.

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