Studies in Policy Failure: Government Decisions That Don’t Benefit Anybody

newman_birdJoshua Newman and Malcolm Bird

It seems that whenever political leaders announce a new policy, a program, a tax, a tax cut, a purchase, a sale, or anything else, they invariably claim that this decision will be for the benefit of all citizens. Of course, only the deeply deluded would believe this to be true – the fundamental scarcity of resources insists that every decision that a government makes must produce winners and losers, supporters and opponents. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

But what if, sometimes, governments did things that didn’t benefit anybody? What if it were possible for situations to arise that actually gave incentives to governing parties to produce pathological policy outcomes? Instead of learning from mistakes, can governments sometimes deliberately make matters worse?

We investigated some cases in the transport sector and found that the above scenario, as odious as it sounds, is possible. Transport is a good place to look for unusual public policy, because it is a high stakes, high risk policy area. Public service delivery in transport is often in the form of megaprojects worth billions of dollars, like the Eurotunnel or Boston’s Big Dig. They are enduring legacy projects that are difficult to undo (have some sympathy for the planners working on the redevelopment of Montreal’s Turcot Interchange, for example). These are policies that do not easily invite experimentation. They are all-in bets.

Which is why transport projects, when they go wrong, create irresistible opportunities for partisan manipulation. We looked at two such cases in some depth – the PacifiCats fleet of aluminium ferries in British Columbia, Canada, and the Sydney Airport Rail Link in Australia. Both cases were intended to act as legacy projects for the governments that initiated them: in the Canadian case, the ferries were to be the forerunners of a new shipbuilding industry that was supposed to boost British Columbia’s economy. In Sydney, the Airport Rail Link was supposed to showcase the benefits of public-private partnerships for financing public infrastructure.

In both cases, disasters of various kinds resulted in the service being used very minimally. In British Columbia, only two of the three aluminium ferries that were built were ever put into service, and even then only for a few months before being retired. In Sydney, the Airport Rail Link was projected to carry 45,000 passengers per day, rising eventually to 65,000 – but its initial ridership numbers were closer to 10,000 (the private operator quickly went bankrupt). Our research, which included personal interviews with elite informants, revealed that government decision makers had been advised on how to rehabilitate the project in a way that would lead the project back to viability – in other words, how to learn lessons from policy failure. Nevertheless, newly elected governments in both cases had an incentive to make the failure worse. In the Canadian case, the incoming Liberal government sold the ferries for a tiny fraction of their cost, essentially writing off the whole project. In Sydney, the Labor government of New South Wales categorically refused to invest in the Rail Link after its financial collapse, which led to years of partisan wrangling that is still not over.

These cases suggest that it is possible for governments to choose policy failure over lesson drawing. If we want to prevent these scenarios from occurring in the future, we need to identify the factors that allow them to happen and propose institutional safeguards that can minimize the likelihood of partisanship producing these highly negative outcomes. Public policy should benefit the public.

Joshua Newman is a Lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.
Twitter: @_joshuanewman

Malcolm Bird is an Associate Professor at the University of Winnipeg in Winnipeg, Canada. Email:

If you liked this blog post you may also be interested to read Policy learning and policy failure: definitions, dimensions and intersections by Claire A. Dunlop.

See also: Special issue on Policy learning and Policy Failure

One thought on “Studies in Policy Failure: Government Decisions That Don’t Benefit Anybody

  1. Abubakar Isah Hassan May 3, 2017 / 10:24 am

    If policy failed to meet it required objective, it means the problems are not well understood by the policy makers or alternatively it wasn’t implemented in the right time.

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