Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Michael Johnson

Second Advisor

Amy E. Smith

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Prottas


Policy failures are controversial, costly, and above all, messy. More often than we wish, what begins as a well-intentioned policy becomes a failure. In all countries and policy areas, some initiatives end up failing miserably, wasting resources, creating endless political struggles, and even affecting countries' governance. However, the perceptions and understanding of failure are dissimilar. Different actors, including researchers, have diverse and indeed conflicting viewpoints of what constitutes failure, its characteristics and avenues of resolution. The growing policy failure literature offers concepts and models to approach this elusive phenomenon, emphasizing the critical role of social perceptions, characteristics of failure episodes, multiple dimensions, and the wide and complex spectrum between failure and success.

This study recognizes the multifaceted nature of policy failure as a starting point. Based on the existing literature, and assuming there are always different perspectives or "lenses" involved, this dissertation proposes the Lenses Framework as a novel approach to explore the understanding of policy failure, by analyzing the case of the 2012 census in Chile.

In 2012, the National Statistics Institute (INE) conducted the census under a new methodology, and what could have been a significant advance on data quality and efficiency became a huge controversy. The census had significant implementation problems, low coverage, accusations of data mishandling, several investigations to assess the errors, and endless political and technical disputes, all of which ended with discarding the census and conducting a new census in 2017.

By using the policy, organizational, and societal lenses, the analysis reveals the different angles of understanding the causes, characteristics and interpretations of the census failure. The policy lens emphasizes the abrupt change of census strategy, the troubled implementation, and differing evaluation criteria. Instead, the organizational lens exposes difficulties in INE's structure, leadership weakness, internal disagreements, and other escalating struggles. In turn, the societal lens unveils the institutional context, political turmoil, the rising power of social media, and the student movement's strength with the profound clash of ideas at stake. Like this, the Lenses Framework tackles the policy failure's messy character, providing new insights for a meaningful, but also helpful, understanding of this complex phenomenon.