Nov 15, 2019

How many ways can policies fail?

Sruti Bandyopadhyay , Knowledge Management Officer
GDI Taxonomy

I recently read an interesting article with a provocative title, “Are Public projects doomed to failure from the start?” The article, written by a Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) team in Switzerland, starts off by posing two critical questions: Why do so many public sector projects fail? And what can be done about it?  On the way to answering these questions, the article proposes a set of categories for understanding the challenges and obstacles that can impede policy implementation. This caught my attention in part because the article’s analytical framework touches on many of the key issues and themes that inform GDI’s taxonomy of delivery challenges, which aims to categorize and classify the various kinds of challenges and obstacles that development practitioners may face during project implementation.

This convergence highlights the urgency of being able to think systematically about challenges that are in some ways unique – that is to say, that in some ways there are as many problems as there are projects, each one conditioned by context (which is why GDI tries to delve into these complexities through case study research). Developing categories is not easy - as Matt Andrews notes, writing in response to the same PWC paper, and adding his own thoughtful notes, categorization is one of the hardest things to do in analyzing case evidence. But this effort is worth it, because it offers a way of thinking that development practitioners can deploy to help them increase the effectiveness of their efforts.

The main divisions that the PWC piece deploys are methods and processes, stakeholder and leadership issues, and complexity and uncertainty.

Methods and Process

The article rightly points out that basic project management matters. This may seem obvious, but the PWC piece notes that many implementers lack these skillsets, as well as the formal training for effective project management, and some may not even recognize the need for these skills at all.

The article also raises an important point about project management tools and methods. In many circumstances, public policy implementers are working in the context of a complex and poorly understood operating ecosystem. This means that they discover delivery challenges as they implement, they face gaps in data, and unseen and unforeseeable changes are constantly taking place. The tools required to plan and manage such interventions are not typically off-the-shelf products. 

Apart from these project management issues, as part of “Process,” the article mentions the importance of strategic alignment. Projects may lack alignment between strategic, policy, or political objectives and the specific project activities. For example, in one case in India, public expenditure on education rose from 3.3 percent of GDP in 2004-05 to over 4 percent in 2011-12. But studies found that in 2010, just over 50 percent of students in standard 5 could read a standard level 2 text. So there was no visible correlation between outlays, policy objectives and outcomes.  

Stakeholder and Leadership Issues

On leadership, the article goes beyond the truism that leadership matters, looking specifically at the implementation challenges that arise due to leadership gaps at the senior level, like lack of top-management support or change in project scope and objectives due to changes in top management. An interesting point in this category is on “Stakeholder Expectations” – which happens to align with Stakeholder Engagement, one of the most common delivery challenges flagged by GDI’s DeCODE system.  Stakeholders assume that their implicit requirements will be reflected in project specifications and delivery, but these are not always discussed. Finally, this category also includes incentives. Does the project/policy have the right incentives embedded in its framework for frontline practitioners to implement it well?  

Complexity and Uncertainty

Implementation of public policies is subject to considerable complexity (political, institutional, and so on), and the uncertainties that inevitably arise from working with human beings. Political and institutional complexities often result in an imbalance between policy objectives and resources. And navigating an authorizing environment characterized by overlapping relationships of power and responsibility is not always easy. Over the course of public policy implementation – often measured over spans of years, not months, with plenty of room for shifts and changes – implementers must figure out how to navigate these complex dynamics, and the uncertainties that they can introduce.

I found this paper quite stimulating because it addresses the kinds of concerns that animate us at GDI: understanding implementation issues, which tend to be under-theorized, underappreciated, and under-researched. The development of useful frameworks and analytical categories to understand non-technical problems and delivery challenges is critical to help us understand how and why the implementation of projects can succeed or fail.

While it is impossible to prepare for every possibility, schematics like those laid out in the PWC paper and in GDI’s taxonomy offer valuable tools for thinking about failure. Before we can think about solutions, in other words, we may need to think more deeply about the challenges that may emerge. Thinking with categories can be a useful way to do this.

For more, please read the paper here and would love to hear your thoughts on this. Have you encountered other categorizations on implementation challenges that you found useful? Are there other categories that could complement the frameworks discussed here? We look forward to hearing from you!