Surprises from one of the world’s largest collections of public policy case studies: from the viral favourites to the flops

Danny Buerkli
Jun 4, 2019 · 5 min read

Written by Margot Gagliani and Danny Buerkli

Over the past three years at the Centre for Public Impact, we have built a collection of well over 300 case studies of public policies from across the world. The “Public Impact Observatory” is a free resource spanning 81 countries across six continents and numerous policy areas.

All our case studies are analysed in a structured way, using the same methodology: the Public Impact Fundamentals framework, which we’ve developed as a simple, practical tool for policymakers to assess policies and tease out what separates success from failure.

It’s become a valued resource for many with more than 20,000 visitors each month. To the best of our knowledge, it is one of the world’s largest collection of public policy case studies.

Here are three things we have learned from building the Observatory over the past three years.

Peering out into the vast expanse of public policies (Photo by Russell Fillerup on Unsplash)

There is just as much, if not more, to be learned from success than from failure

Often, commentary about government tends to focus on failure. There’s a whole cottage industry around this theme with books with titles like “The Blunders of our Government”, “Why Government Fails So Often”, and “Understanding Policy Fiascos.” This isn’t necessarily a surprise nor is it a bad thing: there’s lots of government failure to go around and when public policies go wrong people suffer, so we ought to pay a lot of attention to it.

There is, however, much to be learned from instances where government interventions have been successful. If we don’t study success, how could we ever hope to understand and propagate it? This is why about two-thirds of the cases in our collection can (roughly) be considered successes. We wanted to study these cases, rather than just look at failures, in the hope that it may further our understanding of the conditions that lead to success.

Finland’s “Housing First” policy is a success story from which other countries, regions and cities are learning (Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash)

Finland’s “Housing First” policy is a great example of this. In 2007, Finland’s government decided to adopt a new approach to dealing with homelessness. Setting themselves the ambitious aim of halving long-term homelessness by 2011 and eradicating it by 2015, a working group developed and implemented an integrated strategy based on the Housing First model, following the principle of providing each homeless person with permanent housing. Even though Finland did not eradicate homelessness by 2015, it made considerable progress in reducing long-term homelessness. It is the only European country where homelessness has decreased in recent years.

The Finnish model is drawing interest from around the world. The case study in the Observatory unpacks the story and pinpoints what contributed to its success.

We didn’t expect to get so much interest from journalists, educators, and citizens

When we started the Public Impact Observatory, we primarily built it with policymakers and public sector employees in mind. Over time, we realized that three more groups are also heavy users of the repository:

Firstly, we have found that journalists use our case studies to inform their articles. The case studies regularly get picked up and referenced by newspapers and magazines. Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, Business Insider, and Vice are just four examples.

Secondly, educators like to use the case studies in public policy teaching in universities. We have heard from many academics that assign the case studies — and the underlying methodology, the Public Impact Fundamentals — as reading in their courses.

Educators in universities are using the case studies to teach public policy (Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash)

Thirdly, we have noticed an uptick in regular citizens referring to the case studies when debating public policy issues with each other on Twitter and other social media platforms.

We couldn’t be more delighted that people are making this freely available resource their own and are using the case studies for their own purposes. We can all only benefit from an informed debate about public policy in all quarters.

We could have never predicted which case studies would be the most popular ones

Our three most popular case studies look at Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education programme, Singapore’s e-procurement system and Japan’s efforts to tackle its low birth rate.

The Universal Basic Education case study has received 36 thousand page views to date. We genuinely don’t know why these case studies come out on top. We are, however, proud that the Observatory includes case studies from six continents and that this collection, in a small and imperfect way, contributes to a more equitable view of policymaking.

Our case studies about Nigeria’s Universal Basic Education programme is one of our most popular ones (Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash)

You might also wonder which of the more than 300 case studies has generated the least interest. Our story on the Italian government’s “Compass of Transparency” (La Bussola della Trasparenza), a government transparency web portal, has sadly only attracted about a hundred views.

What does the future hold then?

We know for sure that the “Observatory” will remain a free resource accessible to everyone with an internet connection. All case studies are licensed under a Creative Commons license and can be used for any purpose.

We have also partnered with organisations and individuals such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in England (find our case study series on ageing here), Instituto Natura in Brazil (see for example this case study on education), the Boston Consulting Group (find our case study series on the future of U.S. cities here) and Philipp Weckherlin (find our case studies on financial management here and here). The structured approach of our case studies has helped our partners build an evidence base in policy areas that they support, and illustrate the stories behind more and less successful interventions.

Starting in autumn, we will be releasing a series of fifteen case studies to accompany ‘Great Policy Successes: How Governments Get It Right in a Big Way at Least Some of the Time’, a new Oxford University Press volume edited by Paul ‘t Hart and Mallory Compton.

Cover of “Great Policy Successes” book (Oxford University Press)

Each chapter of the book is a close-up examination of a public policy accomplishment from across the world and will be accompanied by one of our case studies. Together, the volume and case studies will explore when and why the public sector operates successfully, and hopefully will inspire public policy professionals, academics and the public alike as to what governments can do when they operate at their best.

We hope that the Observatory will be discovered by many more policymakers, educators, students, and citizens and that it will continue to inspire and educate.

Centre for Public Impact

Danny Buerkli

Written by

Centre for Public Impact

We are a not-for-profit, founded by the Boston Consulting Group, that works with governments, public servants, and other changemakers to reimagine government. We turn ideas into action so that government works for everyone.

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