Owning up to policy failure: Why does it matter?


The Philippines, on Easter Sunday, reported an additional 11,028 new COVID-19 infections, and a high positivity rate of more than 20%. This, after a year of being under various forms of “lockdown,” one of the longest sustained community quarantines in the world. It is not surprising therefore, that dissatisfaction over how the government has handled the pandemic is growing. In fact, many have claimed that the policy of handling the pandemic in the country has failed.

What do we mean by failure?

Understanding policy failure is not as straightforward as one might think. Public policies are complex and so are the factors that affect their implementation — which serve as lampposts to whether it is considered a success or failure. In the classic book Why policies succeed or fail, written by Ingam and Mann in 1980, they cite several reasons why a policy is considered a failure — such as the incompleteness of information at the time a decision was made, the changing circumstances across the time in which the policy is implemented, and the inability to think of the interconnectedness of policies (and therefore, designing something that is narrow and short-sighted).

And then there are failures that are brought about by factors that are structural — such as when the causal theory (i.e., what causes “Y”) upon which policies are based is not sound, and when political institutions break down.

The former refers to the extent upon which policymakers consider and use accurate and reliable evidence to inform their decisions. The latter, on the other hand, is the magnitude by which political power has taken hostage the way policies are made. In both situations, policy failures are not just the result of the limitation of information, technology, or even cognition; but it is a product of our ailing political institutions and systems which affect our political processes including policymaking.

Another important dimension in understanding policy failure is the notion of policymaking in a time of crisis. In a comparative case study of policy making, Grindle and Thomas wrote in 1991 that during such situations, policy decisions of governments in a less stable political environment are often swayed by external pressures. Particularly, decisions are based on how it can maintain regime legitimacy and, at the same time, continue accessing much needed international support such as loans. These are deemed more essential than technical and bureaucratic considerations of the policy.

If we extend this analysis to our current situation, it makes sense that our policies concerning the containment of the pandemic were those that tend to increase the symbolic representation of government being in control as well as favoring certain international relations in the hope of gaining much needed vaccines. When policy goals are muddled with political ones, it is therefore expected that the policy chain become weak and disorganized, making street-level bureaucrats — the frontliners among policy implementers — either more confused because the goals are not clear, or more “powerful” because unclear goals have inadvertently given them the discretion to take matters into their own hands.

The profound impact of policy failures on the lives of ordinary Filipinos cannot be encapsulated in statistics and numbers. Behind every survivor and victim of the COVID-19 virus is a complex and often heartbreaking narrative. Not to mention the unintended consequences of the pandemic such as the impact the lockdown will have on an entire generation of children whose education has been altered significantly.

There is no policy that is perfect; therefore, they do indeed fail. But for failure to matter, it should be seen as a learning opportunity. All policy failures should induce policy change through a learning process — we often call this “reform.” Chris Agyris’ work on Organizational Learning is useful at this point.

Like human beings, an organization can learn, too and it does so in two ways.

First, in knowing what does not work, it is able to make the necessary adjustments and improve the policy tool (i.e., single loop learning). An example of this would be the development of a real-time unified data system that can direct patients of the nearest vacant COVID-19 facility that can care for them based on their current condition or symptoms. This kind of learning aims to address the failures brought about by the current decentralized and disconnected network of information about the holding capacities of our health facilities — something very important to patients to have access to at the onset of sickness.

Second, an organization can also learn from failure by rethinking the fundamental assumptions and values that support the logic of the policy (i.e., double loop learning). The policy of hard lockdown, for example, is hinged on the assumption that preventing people from moving too much can control the spread of infection. But this ignores new evidence that suggests infection within households has not been properly accounted — something that should’ve been done at the onset of the pandemic. Therefore the rise in infection cases a year after lockdown should have been expected given that we have not focused on how many are infected and where exactly do these infections occur. Hence, mass testing seems to be the more logical way moving forward, which is a more public health and epidemiological approach, rather than the deployment of heavily armed military men at the boundary of the NCR+ bubble.

Perhaps the hesitancy in admitting that policies fail is because of the fact that in doing so, leadership must take the blame. Indeed, when the regime’s legitimacy has always been challenged, the most rational decision will be one that is politically feasible rather than what is scientifically sound.

In schools, we teach our students to embrace failure as this is the greatest of teachers. In life, leadership is not about being right all the time, but it is about learning from one’s mistakes. The point is that unless policymakers acknowledge that there is indeed policy failure, learning cannot take place.

And the soonest they do this, the better. It takes both courage and humility to accept failure, most especially if one’s reputation as a politician and policymaker is at stake.

In the end, a crisis brings out the best and worse in both people and government. The quality of decisions being made are narratives of the ailments of our political institutions and processes. It is, therefore, part of our collective duty as citizens in a democracy to speak about policy failure. Because it is only through the storytelling of failure can the learning process of people, organizations, and institutions begin.

Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean for Graduate Programs of Ateneo de Manila University’s Loyola Schools. She is also an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science.