Front Matter

First published as a special issue of Policy & Politics, this updated volume explores policy failures and the valuable opportunities for learning that they offer. The book begins with an overview of policy learning and policy failure. The links between the two appear obvious, yet there are very few studies that address how one can learn from failure, learn to limit failure, and fail to learn. The book attempts to bring the two together. In doing so, it explores how dysfunctional forms of policy learning impact policy failure at the meso-level. The book expands on this by demonstrating how different learning processes generated by actors at the meso-level mediate the extent to which policy transfer is a success or failure. It re-assesses some of the literature on policy transfer and policy diffusion, in light of ideas as to what constitutes failure, partial failure, or limited success. This is followed by an examination of situations in which the incentives of partisanship can encourage a government to actively seek to exacerbate an existing policy failure rather than to repair it. The book studies the connections between repeated assessments of policy failure and subsequent opportunities for system-wide policy learning and reform. Finally, it introduces the idea of ‘policy myopia’ as a pressing source of failure in policy making and explores the possibility of developing policies that learn to help mitigate its impacts.

Policy Learning and Policy Failure

Edited by

Claire A. Dunlop

First published in Great Britain in 2020 by

Policy Press North America office:
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© Policy Press 2020

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

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ISBN 978-1-4473-5200-6 (HB)

ISBN 978-1-4473-5201-3 (ePdf)

ISBN 978-1-4473-5202-0 (ePub)

The right of Claire A. Dunlop to be identified as editor of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission of Policy Press.

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Cover design by Dave Worth Cover image credit: kindly supplied by Asif Akbar Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Policy Press uses environmentally responsible print partners

For Kaye


  • List of figures and tables vi

  • List of abbreviations vii

  • Notes on contributors viii

  • Acknowledgements x

  1. 1Policy learning and policy failure: definitions, dimensions and intersections

    Claire A. Dunlop 1

  2. 2Pathologies of policy learning: what are they and how do they contribute to policy failure?

    Claire A. Dunlop 23

  3. 3Overcoming the failure of ‘silicon somewheres’: learning in policy transfer processes

    Sarah Giest 49

  4. 4Between policy failure and policy success: bricolage, experimentalism and translation in policy transfer

    Diane Stone 71

  5. 5British Columbia’s fast ferries and Sydney’s Airport Link: partisan barriers to learning from policy failure

    Joshua Newman and Malcolm G. Bird 93

  6. 6Policy failures, policy learning and institutional change: the case of Australian health insurance policy change

    Adrian Kay 113

  7. 7Policy myopia as a source of policy failure: adaptation and policy learning under deep uncertainty

    Sreeja Nair and Michael Howlett 133

List of figures and tables


  1. 2.1Conceptualising knowledge modes as policy learning 27
  2. 2.2Expanding epistemic learning 29
  3. 3.1Learning processes during policy transfer 56
  4. 7.1Typology of uncertainties by options, outcomes and values 137
  5. 7.2Policy maker’s knowledge and comprehension matrix 138
  6. 7.3Different kinds of risk faced by policy makers and potential solutions 139
  7. 7.4Characteristics of different types of uncertainty 139


  1. 2.1Organisational capacities and epistemic learning degeneration 31

List of abbreviations


absorptive capacity


administrative capacity


Australian Labor Party


analytical capacity


British Broadcasting Corporation


British Columbia


bovine tuberculosis


cost-benefit analysis


communicative capacity


Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


evidence-based policymaking


Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee


European Union


International Business Machines corporation


International Monetary Fund


international relations


Independent Scientific Group


Institute of Science and Technology


Korea Advanced Institute of Science


Ling-Temco-Vought corporation


Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food


Major Projects Authority


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


New Democrat Party


National Farmers Union


non-governmental organisations


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development




research and development


Randomised Badger Culling Trial


randomised controlled trial


Southern Methodist University


Silicon Valley Model


Texas Instruments


Universal Credit


United Kingdom


United States

Notes on contributors

Malcolm G. Bird is associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is fascinated by the evolution of Canadian state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the decision-making processes within Westminster Parliamentary systems. His research efforts focus on examining the modernisation of contemporary Canadian SOEs and how they have adapted their internal operations and governance regimes over the last thirty years. He marvels at the capacity of Canadian SOEs to balance diverse and often competing demands from numerous stakeholders as well as from their political masters. He holds a PhD in Public Policy and Administration from Carleton University.

Claire A. Dunlop is professor of politics at the University of Exeter, UK. A public policy and administration scholar, Claire’s main fields of interest include the politics of expertise and knowledge utilisation; epistemic communities and advisory politics; risk governance; policy learning and analysis; impact assessment; and policy narratives. Her recent co-edited volume (with Claudio M. Radaelli and Philipp Trein) is Learning in Public Policy: Analysis, Modes and Outcomes (Palgrave, 2018). Since 2014 she has been editor of Public Policy and Administration and in 2018 became a trustee of the UK Political Studies Association.

Sarah Giest is an assistant professor with the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, Netherlands. Sarah specialises in public policy analysis focusing on policy instruments and capacity in the innovation, technology and sustainability realm. This includes, for example, the use of big data for public climate change efforts or the capacity of government to innovate in urban settings. Her work has been published, among others, in Energy Policy, Environmental Science & Policy, Policy Sciences, and Public Administration. She is on the Editorial Board for Policy Design and Practice and member of the Young Academy Leiden.

Michael Howlett is Burnaby Mountain Professor and Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, Canada. He specialises in public policy analysis, political economy, and resource and environmental policy.

Adrian Kay is an Honorary Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University where he was previously Professor of Government. He is a past President of the Australian Political Studies Association and has also held Chairs in the UK and Asia. He was a member of the UK government’s European Fast Stream for several years and worked for the EU Commission in Brussels prior to a career in academia. His research lies at the intersection of international and comparative public policy, with a current focus on contributing to understanding the relationships between Islam and public policy making in different institutional contexts.

Sreeja Nair is a research fellow at the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore where her research focuses on bridging socio-cultural and political dimensions with technological aspects of water sustainability in Asia. Her research interests include policy design under uncertainty and impacts of environmental change on communities, focusing on water and agriculture sectors.

Joshua Newman is a senior lecturer in the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. His research interests involve the relationship between government and private sector organisations, including regulation, privatisation, and public-private partnerships. In addition, Joshua has written about research utilisation and evidence-based policy, policy outcomes and evaluation, and managing wicked policy problems. He is the author of Governing Public-Private Partnerships (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

Diane Stone is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the Central European University. In order to oversee the transition of the School from Budapest to its new home in Vienna, she has moved from her position in Australia as Centenary Professor in the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. Previously, she was a Professor of Politics and International Studies at Warwick University (1996–2019), a Professor of Politics at the University of Western Australia (2010–13), and a European Commission Marie Curie Chair (2004–08) at Central European University. Additionally, she worked at the World Bank, in the Secretariat that launched the Global Development Network in 1999, then became a member of its Governing Body (2001–05). Currently, Professor Stone is Consulting Editor of Policy & Politics as well as Vice President of the International Public Policy Association. Her most recent publication is Global Policy and Transnational Administration (OUP, 2019).


The chapters for this volume arise from a policy failure and learning workshop hosted by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore, 19–21 February 2014. All the authors wish to thank the workshop organisers – Michael Howlett, M Ramesh and Xun Wu – and all the other participants for their intellectual generosity and support. As editor, I want to extend my sincere thanks to all the anonymous referees whose comments inspired our authors and helped improve the chapters. The collection first appeared as an edited special issue of Policy & Politics (2017, volume 45, issue 1) and we thank the editorial team who made it such a rigorous and fun experience!

Claire A. Dunlop

Exeter, June 2019

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