Why do Policies seem to go Wrong so Often?

Published by Antoine Labeyrie on

What you want to understand… đŸ€”

  • How are policy failures constructed?
  • What role do the media and politicians play in constructing political failures?
  • How do political promises fail to acknowledge the complexity of the policy-making process?
  • What are the shortcomings of our bureaucracies? Can they be modernised?
  • Are current societal trends amplifying our perception of political failure?

Rare are the occasions when policy successes are framed as such by journalists or opinion leaders. It creates an environment where citizens believe that most of the times policies go wrong that is to say that they fall short of their initial objectives and are characterised by a strong opposition and/or an absence of significant support (McConnell, 2010: 36).

In this essay we will understand that people perceive most policies as failures due to narratives developed by the media and politicians competing for power (I). Then we will see that whether a policy goes well or wrong is not only a matter of subjective interpretation, there are also objective reasons that pertain to how decisions are made in our Western democracies (II). Finally we will argue that the feeling that policies seem to go wrong so often is being accentuated by our societies’ political development and the advent of a post-truth era, despite attempts to establish new forms of governance (III).

I. Narratives developed by the media and politicians

As M. Bovens and P.’t Hart stated in 2016, policy failures are constructed, declared, and argued over (Bovens and ‘t Hart, 2016) therefore people’s opinion on policies’ effectiveness is highly dependent on what they are told in the media and by politicians.

A.  The media prioritise policy failures and scandals

As a matter of fact media outlets prioritise policy failures and scandals over successes as they drive sales up. Indeed, bad news is good news for the media and as a result they compete to find the latest political failure and make it an exclusivity for their audience (‘t Hart and Gray, 1998). It doesn’t mean that malpractices happen more often, they are just made more visible by news outlets actively looking for them. Moreover, since “negative coverage in the media is the sine qua non for political failure” (‘t Hart and Gray, 1998: 215), once the media has given them much attention to criticize them, the way is paved for policies to be depicted as complete failures. We can draw a parallel between the media tendency to focus on policy failures and our “negative bias” that is to say our increased attention for bad news as they can be signs of potential dangers (Stafford, 2014).

Besides, as described by Hart and Gray, the loosening of the links between the media and politicians gives more leeway to the former to point out policy failures. However, nowadays there is a strong polarisation of the media with news outlets being owned by billionaires like Rupert Murdoch who used his power to support D.Trump’s 2016 candidacy and denounce H.Clinton’s actions as B.Obama’s Secetary of State. Vincent BollorĂ© also uses his media power to influence the 2022 French presidential elections by favouring Eric Zemmour’s candidacy and criticizing President Macron’s results. These media moguls certain editorial policies and target political parties with opposite ideologies in order to frame their achievements as failures. As a result the media play a major role in creating a news environment where policy failures are preponderant.

B.  Politicians frame each other’s actions as failures

Likewise, politicians try to frame their opponents’ actions in such a way that voters see them as failures.

In electoral campaigns political actors compete with each other to impose their frame (HĂ€nggli and Hanspeter, 2010) that is to say compare the success or high potential of their policies to their rivals’ policy failures or risks of failure. The political arena becomes thus full of accusations of failure which creates confusion in voters’ mind and stimulates their negative bias making them remember only policies’ shortcomings despite potential positive outcomes.

Furthermore, politicians have incentives to convince voters that others’ policies failed as it can create an opportunity to rise to power (’t Hart, 1993). In fact giving the illusion of a crisis can offer important political gains since a politician competing for power can portray himself as the figurehead of a movement claiming a need for change. For example in the late 1980s, the Italian government went through a difficult period following the failure of its policies to develop Southern regions’ economies (Sykes, 1998). Several politicians framed these policies as a substantial waste of public money. Umberto Bossi took advantage of this situation to create his political party the Lega Nord in 1991 and portrayed himself as the solution to Italians’ problems and as an alternative to a corrupted elite.

As we have understood, the political game incentivises politicians to frame others’ policies as failure thus reinforcing like the media citizens’ feeling that policies seem to go wrong so often.

II. The harsh reality of politics and the shortcomings of bureaucratic administrations

As Allan McConnell argues in 2014, failures are mainly but not only a matter of narratives. In fact the subjective interpretations of policies described above have some objective underpinnings.

A.  The gap between political aspirations and the reality of politics

Voters’ ignorance of the policy-making process in our Western societies is a key factor of their regular dissatisfaction with public policies. Unless people learn about the gap between political aspirations and decision-making reality, they are bound to see policies going wrong most of the time.

There is indeed a contrast between what politicians promise to do during electoral campaigns and what they can actually do once in power. It is due to incrementalism which is our Western democracies’ decision-making process. Incrementalism consists in incrementally increasing, decreasing, or modifying past activities, programs, and policies (Dye, 2013). As a consequence, politicians cannot bring the big changes promised during their campaigns, they are forced to back down on their initial objectives and work with already-existing policies (Hogwood and Peters, 1982). It is the branch method that “continually builds out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees” which is opposed to the method that politicians would like to adopt i.e. the root method consisting in “starting from fundamentals anew each time [
] and always prepared to start completely from the ground up” (Lindblom, 1959: 81). Hence incrementalism fuels voters’ frustration and feeling that policies go wrong most of the time because they cannot be the final resolution of their problem but only a step towards it.

Besides, some policies may only produce significant results years after their implementation. Complex policies need time to demonstrate accomplishments given that costs and benefits are usually unevenly distributed over time (Hudson et al, 2016). That’s why citizens will stay unsatisfied with policies as they expect policies not only to produce results consistent with electoral promises but also to produce them within a short time frame.

However, we must add that occasionally a particular policy window (Kingdon, 1984) opens such that the incremental process is disturbed by radical changes. Nonetheless incrementalism is eventually always restored. This theory of the Punctuated Equilibrium implies that sometimes politicians can bring major changes but most of the time they are constrained by the incremental decision-making process of our societies (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993).

B.  Our bureaucratic system is prone to failures

People’s feeling that policies go wrong so often also hinges on our bureaucratic administrations’ decision-making process being prone to failures.

First and foremost, policy-makers approach problem-solving with short-term and standardised responses. Robert Goodin argues that they don’t realise how persistent some problems may be and therefore tend to concentrate on short-term fix that only address symptoms (Goodin, 1982). Consequently these issues are bound to regularly come back in the news, kindling citizens’ incomprehension and feeling that past policies wasted public resources. Besides, bureaucracies are stuck in a routine where they apply “standardised operational procedures to non-standard problems” (‘t Hart and Gray, 1998: 210). For example, according to G.Allison’s Organisational Process model, during the 1962 Cuban crisis both US and Soviet administrations followed already-set procedures not necessarily adapted to the situation, which he argues led to various blunders and suboptimal decisions on both sides (Allison, 1971).

Furthermore, since collecting information is costly, organisations prefer limiting their sources which nonetheless leads to a disconnection from their surrounding environment (Dror, 1986). In fact governments ignore less prestigious information sources to focus on those, like other public organisations, that conform to their norms (Hunold, 1997). It risks isolating administrations from actors with potentially crucial insights for understanding problems and designing appropriate policies with a reduced probability of failure. However, administrations’ functioning prevents policy-makers from having a comprehensive understanding of problems which may beget policies going wrong (‘t Hart and Gray, 1998).

Bureaucratic administrations’ decision-making process is also prone to failures because they face issues that become more and more multifactorial, thus requiring collaboration between different government departments. However, administrations are imperfect as they suffer from but not only internal limits like multi-organisational sub-optimisation i.e. there are too many non-coordinated government departments competing for resources (Hood, 1976). For instance, the lack of cooperation between the various US intelligence agencies is an explanation for why the US couldn’t prevent the World Trade Centre attacks. This segmentation and rigidity in administrations’ organisation is also due to their linear thinking that perceives problems as stable and well-defined (Dror, 1983). This overall lack of comprehensiveness in their approach to problem-solving leads to misconceptions and wrong decisions.

As a matter of fact, policy-makers’ short-termism, standardised thinking, lack of comprehensiveness and segmented organisation are various reasons why bureaucracies are prone to failures and hence why people feel that policies go wrong so often.

III. Current trends in Western societies

We have just seen the subjective and objective factors explaining why people think that policies go wrong so often. Let us now explore why this belief is being reinforced by current trends in our Western societies.

A.  The post-truth era

The advent of a post-truth era breeds the spread of doubt, confusion and distrust in our societies (Baron, 2018). Therefore, when uncertainty dominates, citizens’ negative bias will make them pay disproportionate attention to what goes wrong i.e. potential dangers. Moreover, our societies’ polarisation results in an amplification of these negative and worrisome messages as people adopt more virulent political stances. This polarisation is partly due to mass immigration and urbanisation resulting in an increasing socio-economic and cultural diversity. These various communities may approach issues and their resolution differently (Bryson and Crosby, 1992). Post-truth politics imply that there will always be a more or less important population segment that will disapprove a given policy (Baron, 2018). Furthermore, the phenomenon of echo-chambers makes statements of policy failures by these minorities more impactful while the majority remains silent. Indeed, according to I.Baron, the post-truth era makes people more victims of their confirmation biases. Hence they gather in clusters of like-minded people who don’t get information from outside sources and who progressively get disconnected from reality. A. Fung et al argue that digital technologies play a role in this polarisation as they create echo-chambers (Fung et al., 2013) that give more impact and significance to opposition movements.

B.  Western societies’ political development

Western societies’ political development is contributing to reinforcing people’s belief that policies go wrong so often.

As a matter of fact, people are more likely to feel that they are doing worse according to Wildavsky. He explained it by the development of education and information technologies that enable citizens to be more vocal about their political expectations from their governments. It entailed a growing demand for transparency and accountability of what governments do with public funds (Wildavsky, 1987). As explained in this essay, governments struggle not only to satisfy public expectations but also to do it quickly, which fuels a decreasing deference to public authorities. Therefore, Robert Hoppe analyses that there is a risk of seeing politicians resorting to dramaturgical incrementalism i.e. combining non-incremental symbolic actions to produce mass public arousal and incremental and technical policy-making work performed out of public view (Hoppe, 2018). For example, Euroskepticism comes from the discrepancy between national political ambitions promising dramatic changes and disheartened politicians coming back to their country empty-handed after being confronted to EU institutions’ bureaucratic decision-making process. As a result, the development of education and information technologies creates a decreasing deference to public authorities which may foster dramaturgical incrementalism that in turn reinforces people’s feeling that policies go wrong so often.

We can also mention that the aforementioned political development is associated with an administrative and constitutional modernisation which institutionalises the function of watchdog in the political system itself (‘t Hart and Gray, 1998). Such watchdogs are courts of audit, ombudsmen or also inspection boards. Their presence implies that more policy failures can be brought to light thus contributing to an environment where policy failures become predominant. For instance, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction is a US government watchdog that evaluates the management of the situation in Afghanistan. After the US withdrawal in August 2021, it published a report denouncing the mishandling of the crisis (Lantry, 2021) which amplified the media frenzy around the failure of US Afghanistan-related policies.

C.  Failed attempts to modernise bureaucratic administrations

Besides, citizens’ feeling that policies go wrong so often is here to stay as attempts to modernise Western bureaucratic administrations didn’t produce the intended results.

For example, the New Public Management (NPM) wave of the late XXth century aspired to make governance more rational, efficient and flexible (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). However, even though it is difficult to draw clear conclusions on the NPM effects, the latter was accompanied in the UK with an increase in government running costs and a decrease of citizens’ satisfaction with their administration’s fairness and consistency (Hood and Dixon, 2016).

More recently, a Digital-Era Governance (DEG) is being advocated for. It would embrace new communication technologies and Internet-related opportunities to revolutionise governance. It would also take the opposite stance to NPM and establish a more holistic form of government that would bring activities together under a same umbrella of accountability (Dunleavy, 2005). However, DEG remains unlikely to improve significantly our Western democracies’ policy-making process. In fact, most revolutionary changes promised by DEG such as more direct democracy or the displacement of traditional organisations will be uncommon; whereas already-existing objectives like facilitating constituent mobilisation and truth-based advocacy will be reinforced (Fung et al., 2013).

Therefore whether it is NPM or DEG, these attempts to reform our decision-making system either failed to live up to its promises or is unlikely to bring substantial improvements. Hence, it seems that people’s feeling that policies go wrong so often will not be addressed by systemic reforms in the short- and medium-term.


We have thus come to the conclusion that policies seem to go wrong so often because of both subjective and objective reasons. On one hand the media are prone to relating policy failures for economic reasons. On the other hand politicians participate in a framing competition so as to discredit their rivals’ actions and create opportunity for change in their favour. Nonetheless, citizens’ impression that policy go wrong so often also hinges on actual shortcomings of bureaucratic administrations as well as the discrepancy between politicians’ electoral promises and what they can actually achieve once in power. Indeed there are objective reasons why policies go wrong so often, it is not only a matter of media and political narratives. The question that then arises is whether current trends in our Western democracies will reverse this feeling or rather accentuate it. As we have argued, this feeling is here to stay because of the dawn of post-truth politics and the political development of our societies. Minorities’ denunciations of policy failures become more visible and citizens’ demands towards their politicians increase while the policy-making process remains unchanged. As a result, failure becomes more visible than ever and policies will seem to go wrong as much if not more often than before.


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