Skip to Content

Home » Research Projects » Responding to Evidence of Poor Performance: Explaining Public Organisations’ Capacity to Deal with Failure

Fixing Failure

What happens when public services are seen to fail? What could be done better?

Human beings react to accusations of failure indifferent ways – embarrassment and confusion, furious denial, self-examination and promises of improvement. When evidence of failure emerges in public services, responses can be similarly various and pressures for blame-avoidance are often strong. This study will look at how challenges arising from evidence of poor performance are met and what can be learned from different strategies for coping with failure.

While numerous individual cases of public service failure have been documented in official reports and academic studies, and various organisations have been set up to deal with failure (such as the Healthcare Commission in England) in particular domains, there has been to date no systematic study in the UK of how failure is dealt with, and so policy makers and practitioners lack theoretically informed and empirically grounded advice on which to act.

The study will look specifically at performance failure in health care and in local government in England, and will then use case studies to compare findings in those areas with experiences in other public sector settings. It will provide a systematic analysis of how public organisations respond to evidence of poor performance which can inform policy and practice.

What the research means for policymakers and the wider community

Research Methods

The study will:

Project Outputs and Related Webpages

Harvey G., Skelcher C., Spencer E., Jas P and Washe K. (2010) ‘Absorptive Capacity in a Non-Market Environment:  A knowledge-based approach to analysing the performance of sector organizations’  Public Management Review, Vol 12 (1):  77 – 97

Walshe K., Harvey G., Skelcher C. and Jas, P. (2009)  Could do better? Knowledge, learning and performance improvement in public services (pdf).

 ‘Failing to learn – or learning to fail?‘ Society Guardian, 20/5/2009

Research Team

Kieran Walshe

Kieran Walshe

Kieran Walshe is Professor of Health Policy and Management at Manchester Business School and Director of the Centre of Public Policy and Management at Manchester Business School. He has made extensive studies of failure and turnaround in the public sector. Books include Patient Safety: Research into Practice and Regulating Healthcare: A Prescription for Improvement?

Chris Skelcher

Chris Skelcher

Chris Skelcher Professor of Local Government Studies at the Institute of Local Government Studies, and Director of Research in the School of Public Policy, at the University of Birmingham.

Gill Harvey

Gill Harvey

Gill Harvey is Senior Lecturer in Healthcare and Public Sector Management at the Centre for Public Policy and Management at Manchester Business School.

Pauline Jas

Pauline Jas

Pauline Jas is Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.