Book Review: Great Policy Successes, Mallory E. Compton and Paul T. Hart (eds)

December 5, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

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Loved the idea of this Open Access book from the moment I saw the subtitle: ‘Or, A Tale About Why It’s Amazing That Governments Get So Little Credit for Their Many Everyday and Extraordinary Achievements as Told by Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Create Space for a Less Relentlessly Negative View of Our Pivotal Public Institutions.’ Count me in.

Great Policy Successes explores 15 case studies, nearly all of them from developed countries, although Brazil’s Bolsa Familia gets a look in. The all-important selection criteria were outcome, process and staying power:

‘A policy is a complete success to the extent that (a) it demonstrably creates widely valued social outcomes; through (b) design, decision-making, and delivery processes that enhance both its problem-solving capacity and its political legitimacy; and (c) sustains this performance for a considerable period of time, even in the face of changing circumstances.’

And here they are:

Brazil’s Bolsa Família scheme—How Brazil built the world’s largest conditional cash transfer scheme.

High Quality, Low Cost Healthcare in Singapore.

Cutting waiting times in the NHS.

UK tobacco control.

The GI Bill—How the United States provided social support to soldiers returning from the Second World War.

Finland’s globally recognized education system.

Estonia’s post-communist digital transformation (skype and stuff).

Los Angeles’ Alameda rail corridor project.

How the once staid and struggling city of Melbourne became the global epitome of cool urban.

The Dutch Delta strategy — aka how The Netherlands is staying above water despite sea level rise.

Copenhagen’s Five Finger Urban Plan. (guess most cities prefer two fingers….)

Norway’s Petroleum Fund – aka how tododge the bullet of the ‘resource curse’.

New Zealand’s economic turnaround.

Germany’s labour market reforms.

The Montreal Protocol (remember the hole in the ozone layer? Exactly).

The editors are commendably cautious in their overall conclusions – don’t expect any kind of secret sauce to be distilled about the lessons of success. But they do offer some ‘themes for classroom discussion’ that give a hint of the variety of success factors they found in the different case studies:

Opportunity and Necessity: What triggers policymaking activity may matter. Quite a few of the cases (e.g. Melbourne and Singapore) were driven by the desire to move away from problems: existing or impending adversity, danger, or disadvantage. By contrast, Norway’s Petroleum Fund was triggered by the oil windfall; Estonia’s digital strategy was born out of zest and drive to modernize on the wings of the country’s liberation from Soviet rule. Finnish education policy was quietly built not in response to some felt problem but in fulfilment of pedagogical aspirations.

Pro-action and Re-action: The Dutch, Danish, and Norwegian cases are the exemplars of governing by foresight and for the long range. In contrast, some of the policy successes were fundamentally reactive, driven by events producing cumulative negative consequences that eventually created political windows of opportunity: recession-busting in New Zealand, stagnation-busting in Germany, poverty-busting in Brazil.

Concentrated and Shared Power: The drive to reduce NHS waiting times provides a classic instance of top-down leadership. In countries and sectors where the institutional rules of the game are predisposed towards power-sharing between multiple parties, such top-down policymaking is politically infeasible and culturally inappropriate. As the German, Dutch, Danish, and both US cases show, success in these systems is to be achieved through extensive consultation, bargaining, and negotiation.

Making Progress: Miles and Inches: Big differences in the speed of policymaking. The Dutch are taking fifty years to ‘climate proof’ their water management arrangements. Copenhagen’s urban planning regime has evolved over half a century. In contrast, in institutionally simpler jurisdictions such as pre-MMP (mixed member proportional representation) New Zealand and post-communist Estonia ambitious policies were largely conceived and executed within the life of one government.

Politicization and Depoliticization: Tony Blair’s public commitment and personal resolve to reduce waiting times for NHS patients provides a clear example of politicization of the status quo in a policy domain providing momentum for change. Similarly, the fragmented suite of conditional cash transfer programmes in Brazil could only be galvanized into the national Bolsa Família scheme on the wings of the Lula government’s firm political commitment. At the other end of the spectrum, the Dutch government turned depoliticization of a potentially fractious wicked problem—how to ensure there is still a country left to inhabit as sea levels rise and the rivers swell—into an art form by appointing and empowering a studiously non-political authority figure to operate as a ‘consensus architect’.

Inclusion and Exclusion: In consensual democracies such as Denmark and the Netherlands, creating ‘big tents’—inclusive structures and processes of consultation, deliberation, and co-design—is second nature to public policy-makers and averts what otherwise could easily become political deadlocks. But even in not traditionally consultative political systems such as Australia, it was the astute incorporation of grassroots voices and initiatives into the Melbourne regeneration policy mix that enriched its substance and helped broaden its support base. In contrast, in the Alameda corridor project the ‘big boys’ (the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach) narrowed the decision-making arena and thus robbed smaller players of their blocking power.

The key challenge for both students and practitioners is to figure out what combinations of design practices, political strategies, and institutional arrangements are both effective and appropriate in the context at hand.’

i.e. ‘it depends’. Sorry!

December 5, 2019
Duncan Green