Why policy failure is a prerequisite for innovation in the public sector

Blog by Philipp Trein and Thenia Vagionaki: “In our article entitled, “Why policy failure is a prerequisite for innovation in the public sector,” we explore the relationship between policy failure and innovation within public governance. Drawing inspiration from the “Innovator’s Dilemma,”—a theory from the management literature—we argue that the very nature of policymaking, characterized by myopia of voters, blame avoidance by decisionmakers, and the complexity (ill-structuredness) of societal challenges, has an inherent tendency to react with innovation only after failure of existing policies.  

Our analysis implies that we need to be more critical of what the policy process can achieve in terms of public sector innovation. Cognitive limitations tend to lead to a misperception of problems and inaccurate assessment of risks by decision makers according to the “Innovator’s Dilemma”.  This problem implies that true innovation (non-trivial policy changes) are unlikely to happen before an existing policy has failed visibly. However, our perspective does not want to paint a gloomy picture for public policy making but rather offers a more realistic interpretation of what public sector innovation can achieve. As a consequence, learning from experts in the policy process should be expected to correct failures in public sector problem-solving during the political process, rather than raise expectations beyond what is possible. 

The potential impact of our findings is profound. For practitioners and policymakers, this insight offers a new lens through which to evaluate the failure and success of public policies. Our work advocates a paradigm shift in how we perceive, manage, and learn from policy failures in the public sector, and for the expectations we have towards learning and the use of evidence in policymaking. By embracing the limitations of innovation in public policy, we can better manage expectations and structure the narrative regarding the capacity of public policy to address collective problems…(More)”.