Effects and Outcomes of Structural Reforms

Describing, analysing and assessing the effects of structural reforms is far from problem-free. It depends on the yardstick (see the various evaluation criteria), the time frame (short-term (outcomes) versus long-term achievements (impact) or the type of goals (operational, tactical or strategic goals). For a reform to be successful, at least two conditions must be met. First, we have to determine to what extent the reform has been implemented as intended by the actor(s) taken as central to the analysis. Second, we must investigate to what extent different kinds of goals have been accomplished as a result of the reform. If these conditions are not met, the reform should be regarded as not successful, even when goals are achieved. Goal achievement in such cases could for example result from unforeseen events or changing circumstances. Instead of, or next to, intended effects, unintended or side effects may occur (e.g. Bovens et al., 2001).

There are many reasons why reforms may not be successful. Flaws in design or implementation are among them. Choosing ineffective policy instruments or poor implementation, for whatever reason (see section on policy design and policy implementation), can equally prevent goal achievement. Below we list a number of factors that may thwart structural reforms (Ingram and Mann, 1980; Birkland, 2001). All of these factors may equally apply to the policy instruments.

As structural reforms do not happen overnight, circumstances may change after a reform policy has been designed. What seemed reasonable to assume at the time can become obsolete through later, disruptive events.

Policies are interrelated and structural reforms may benefit from either higher education or public sector policies, or other policies may hinder the implementation of a structural reform. The multiplicity of policies can cause complex dynamics, and incompatible policies may not lead to the intended effects, or not to the extent desired.

A structural reform’s success also depends on the level of ambition. Excessive or unrealistic expectations and demands easily contribute to feelings of disappointment, indifference or resistance, preventing reforms from becoming successful. Politicians sometimes promise too much to please their constituency, or stated policy goals are not the actual goals, as policymakers just want to trigger change (symbolic instead of realistic goals).

For several reasons, the set of assumptions about cause and effect (policy beliefs or policy theory) may appear to be incorrect in practice. These unintended effects may be positive or negative, and need careful attention (but cannot be known in advance) as it may affect the overall judgement about the reform. Finally, stakeholders usually have their own perceptions and thoughts about goals and means (and the relationships between them), depending on their position, resources and beliefs (as we will argue in more detail below), and may react to policies in unexpected ways (Bovens and Hart, 2016).

Although we cannot take such tensions away, the result of the awareness of the ambiguity in goal achievement assessment is that we will present as much as possible a balanced view in which the opinions of various stakeholders are being heard. Moreover, we will also take into account the context in which the specific structural reforms unfolded.

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