Public Policy as Inaction: The Politics of Doing Nothing

15 Pages Posted: 24 Sep 2014

See all articles by Allan McConnell

Allan McConnell

The University of Sydney

Paul t' Hart

Utrecht University

Date Written: September 23, 2014


Despite, as Dye argues, that all definitions of public policy boil down to the same thing: ‘whatever governments choose to do or not do’, there is a bias in the policy sciences towards the study of policy activity, to the virtual neglect of policy inactivity. Public policy analysis needs to develop a more robust understanding and more sophisticated evaluation of inaction. This paper provides a roadmap for doing so. First it examines the relative neglect of policy inaction within the policy sciences. Second, it addresses the issue of what constitutes policy inaction, addressing some of the methodological difficulties in doing so. Third, it examines the issue of how policy inaction is manifest. Fourth, it explores the causes of inaction, focusing on both deliberate inaction and inaction constrained by a number of psychological, institutional and political-ideational contexts. Fifth, it sets out some of the complexities and tension of policy inaction, including the tension between inaction as (sometimes) ‘good policy’ but ‘bad politics’. Finally, it identifies issues for future research.

Keywords: public policy, inaction, doing nothing

Suggested Citation

McConnell, Allan and t' Hart, Paul, Public Policy as Inaction: The Politics of Doing Nothing (September 23, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Allan McConnell (Contact Author)

The University of Sydney ( email )

University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW 2006

Paul T' Hart

Utrecht University

Vredenburg 138
Utrecht, 3511 BG

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