Skip to main content

Success in Public Governance: Assessing and explaining how public problems are sometimes addressed remarkably effectively

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SuccessfulGovernance (Success in Public Governance: Assessing and explaining how public problems are sometimes addressed remarkably effectively)

Reporting period: 2018-03-01 to 2019-08-31

The SPG (Success in Public Governance) program studies when and why the public sector operates really successfully. This is not a trivial matter. There is plentiful evidence about the pivotal role that the quality of public governance in making (or breaking) the wealth, well-being and resilience of communities and nations. Yet existing political and public institutions and professions are challenged by cascades of technological, economic and social change. The nation state is no longer the self-evident centre of gravity in tackling the problems of our time and representative democracy is no longer taken for granted as the only game in town in organizing collective action. There is widespread scepticism about the problem-solving capacity of governments and about the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of public bureaucracies. Existing public governance scholarship has in recent decades built up a rich language persuading us just how difficult it is to govern well, particularly in late-modern conditions. We are now routinely told that ‘VUCA’ (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), risk, disturbances and crises are the new normal. Existing research on public governance accordingly focuses on its dilemmas, shortcomings, failures, unintended consequences, and inherent limitations. In contrast, our research program purposefully leans the other way in how we approach the study of governments and governance today – not to replace the bodies of critical work presented above but to offer both a complement and a counterweight to them. SPG focuses on studying instances of successful government and governance, on multiple levels and in all its manifestations. We explore how instances of success become framed, perceived, assessed and reputed as such, and what it is about them that renders them successful. In particular we focus on the following key questions:

1. What does ‘success’ in public governance look like? How is it defined and assessed by those who engage in it (policymakers), those who experience it (stakeholders, citizens), those who assess and evaluate it (professional and investigative bodies) and those who study it academically (the research community)?
2. How can we identify, explain, and learn from instances of major public policy success? This includes in-depth and comparative case studies of ambitious, impactful and widely appreciated instances of urban planning and development; innovative social, educational, public health and safety programs; and major general interest reforms in e.g. pensions and competition policy.
3. How can we identify, explain and learn from the design and practices of highly successful public organizations?
4. How can we identify, explain and learn from instances of successful collaborative (horizontal, interactive) governance?

In engaging with these questions, we want to explore the academic and societal potential of building what might be called a ‘Positive Public Administration’ (analogous to, e.g. Positive Psychology). Where the study of failure, breakdown and crisis can tell us what to avoid, the study of successful governance can teach us what to embrace and emulate when we design political and administrative institutions, make public policy decisions, orchestrate service delivery processes, craft public innovations, and develop public sector workers and leaders.
In this reporting period we have:

A) built and consolidated our multinational and multidisciplinary team and have developed relationships and designed processes for making it work as a cohesive unit, firmly embedded within the host institution and its research infrastructures. The two PhD-projects have been started up and are now (April 2019) firmly on-track

B) convened an international invitation-only research colloquium (Feb 2017) that brought together 30 leading and emerging researchers from all over the world, which resulted in the formation of two international research teams led by SPG members. One team explores the nexus between the performance and the reputation/legitimacy of public organizations. The other team builds a large-n dataset on the performance of collaborative governance arrangements, such as networks, partnerships and coordination committees (see further below)

C) convened a senior public sector practitioner expert panel (March 2017) to discuss the program's rationale, focus and design, and to tap into their 'theories in use' about successful public governance. Participants included CEO's and Senior Executive Board members from 15 Dutch government and non-government organisations.

D) initiated two further collaborative projects: specially commissioned collections of in-depth case studies of ‘great policy successes’, designed not only to advance the frontiers of knowledge about the nature and correlated of public policy success, but also to produce rich narratives suitable for case-teaching in, e.g. executive education programs. Each collection comprises numerous (15 and 19 respectively) full-length case studies, selected and written by national and sectoral policy experts. In April and June 2018 authors’ meetings were held in Utrecht and Melbourne to discuss first drafts of the case studies, identify patterns and distill practical learnings.
The first collection (D1) comprises cases from all over the world, and will be published (open access) by Oxford University Press in mid 2019; the second collection (D2)focuses on cases from Australia and New Zealand, and will be published (open access) by Australian National University Press in April 2019. Both collections are designed and edited by PI and postdoc Mallory Compton (global volume) and PhD student Jo Luetjens (Aus/NZ volme, for which professor Michael Mintrom of Manosh University, Melbourne completes the editorial team).

E) organized a much wider dissemination 'spinoff strategy' for the D1 case studies. In the Summer of 2018 we have sought collaboration with the Centre for Public Impact, a non-profit and independent organisation (funded by the Boston Consulting Group) dedicated to advancing insight into 'what works' in public policy design and delivery in different policy settings and political systems around the world. They operate the Public Impact Observatory ( a database of cases presented according to a common interpretive matrix format. The 15 cases from our D2 volume have been adapted to that format and will be published (and flagged as resulting from the partnership with my ERC-funded research program) on the Observatory - which has tens of thousands of users from across the world) to coincide with the publication of the open access OUP volume in September 2019.

F) firmed up the partnership with colleagues from Berkeley, Uppsala and Roskilde universities (though a 3-day team meeting in Southern Denmark in September 2018) devoted to building up a unique and comprehensive dataset of case studies of collaborative governance processes across a wide range of sectors and countries. The format of the database is that of a common pool resource, where researchers that opt-in agree to contribute data from case studies of collaborative governance that they have previously researched and published to the common pool in exchange for immediate and full access rights to the entire dataset. R
Key current and upcoming deliverables include:

A1. Mid/Fall 2019: Two open access volumes (and several spin-off journal articles) of in total 34 intensive case studies of public policy successes (enduringly effective and highly rated programs and reforms) that (a) provide the public policy research community with a common conceptual framework for assessing and explaining the (nature/level of) policy success; (b) open up space in and around government and public debate about government to pay more attention to and actively learn from instances of notable accomplishment (public value creation) by contemporary governments; (c) provide public policy educators and evaluators with a suite of teachable cases.

A2. Fall 2019: Publication of 15 of those cases on the Public Impact Observatory website

B. Late 2020: One open access volume of 15 case studies (and one or two spinoff journal articles) of enduringly successful and respected organizations in the public domain (including both governmental and not for profit / international organizations) making precisely the same contributions as above but with an explicit focus on organizational success

C. Early 2020: A field-redefining Manifesto for a Positive Public Administration (currently under review with a top-tier journal)

D. Late 2021: Two doctoral dissertations (and a string of related journal articles) pushing the state of the art in the study of public policy reform (Jo Luetjens) and the effectiveness of regulatory agencies (Lauren Fahy)

E. Ongoing: A open access dataset of case studies of collaborative governance practices, a unique common-pool research tool available to anyone pursuing questions about the nature and dynamics of collaboration in the public sector and the conditions/correlates of its success, and a string of special issues/articles and other scientific output driven by or drawing on the database, both by SPG members and the wider community scholars now involved in this collaborative effort.

F. 2021/2022: Publication of a monograph and a string of articles and reports about successful security governance in the 21st century. Teaming up with leading scholars of terorrism, radicalisation, cybersecurity and international relations