The contentious politics of policy failure: The case of corporate board gender quotas in Spain

AuthorEmanuela Lombardo,Tània Verge
Publication Date01 Apr 2021
SubjectRegular Articles
untitled Article
Public Policy and Administration
2021, Vol. 36(2) 232–251
The contentious politics
! The Author(s) 2019
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of policy failure: The case
DOI: 10.1177/0952076719852407
of corporate board
gender quotas in Spain
Ta`nia Verge
Department of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pompeu
Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
Emanuela Lombardo
Department of Political Science and Administration, Instituto de
Investigaciones Feministas, Universidad Complutense, Madrid,
Drawing on the insights of studies examining opposition to gender equality policy, this
article develops an actor-centric analytical framework of the contentious politics under-
pinning the entire policy process and suggests that resistance is a crucial meta factor
explaining policy failure. Through a longitudinal study of corporate board gender quotas
in Spain, it investigates the ways in which enduring conflict between support and oppos-
ition actors can lead to policy failure at the different stages of the policy cycle. The
article shows that resistance by status quo actors can undermine policy legitimacy and
weaken its design at the adoption phase. Subsequently, resistance can lead not only to a
poor implementation and evaluation work, resulting in policy incoherence, but also to
the reinstatement of old assumptions. Ultimately, resistance may bring about the dilu-
tion of the policy’s core ideas, the reduction of its scope and the dismantling of its
governing arrangements, thereby hindering its durability. Our empirical analysis also
reveals that policy failures can trigger actors’ policy learning and yield interest realign-
ments of advocacy coalitions aimed at reformulating the policy to enhance its
Advocacy coalitions, gender quotas, policy failure, policy learning process, resistance,
Corresponding author:
Ta`nia Verge, Department of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Ramon Trias Fargas 23-25,
08005 Barcelona, Spain.

Verge and Lombardo
Slightly over 20 countries, mostly European, have instituted requirements to over-
come women’s chronic underrepresentation in corporate boards (Piscopo and
Clark Muntean, 2018). In the mid-2000s, Spain was second after Norway to intro-
ducing a comprehensive framework on statutory gender quotas whose goal was to
reach at least 40% women on boardrooms. This policy was adopted and imple-
mented amidst strong contestation. As of 2018, with 23.7% female board members
in the largest listed companies, Spain ranks last among the European Union coun-
tries with legislated quotas—36.3% average—and is outperformed by most of the
countries using softer measures such as self-regulation codes—26.4% average
(EIGE, 2018). Non-fulf‌illment of the expected outcomes set out by the policy
proponents and ongoing opposition render corporate board gender quotas in
Spain an undisputable case of policy failure.
Analyses of policy failure must look at the multiplicity of actors and factors at
work in the entire policy process (Hill and Hupe, 2014; Howlett, 2018). A holistic
approach is particularly needed when studying complex policy problems rooted in
multiple causes (Howlett et al., 2009), as is the case of gender equality policies,
whose design and implementation tend to face signif‌icant opposition (Verloo,
2018). While actors’ support and opposition are crucial for understanding the
feedback ef‌fects of policies, af‌fecting not only their legitimacy but also their coher-
ence and durability (May, 2015), the role of actors in policy failure remains largely
under theorized (cf. May and Jochim, 2013: 446; see also Dunlop and Radaelli,
2018; Mackie, 2016). To address this gap, we analyze the interplay of politics and
policy by investigating the ways in which enduring conf‌lict between support and
opposition actors can lead to policy failure throughout the dif‌ferent stages of the
policy cycle (McConnell, 2015).
We take stock of and contribute to the scholarship on policy failure and imple-
mentation by applying a feminist institutionalist and public policy approach that
enhances our understanding of the power-distributional implications of policies
(see Waylen, 2014). Our empirical results show that passive and active resistance
by status quo actors can weaken the policy design in the adoption phase and
undermine its legitimacy. Subsequently, resistance can yield not only a poor imple-
mentation and evaluation, causing policy incoherence, but also bring about the
reinstatement of old assumptions. Ultimately, resistance can lead to the reshaping
of the policy upon the departure of its proponents, thereby hindering its durability.
Our results also reveal that policy failures can modify actors’ beliefs and objectives,
inducing interest realignments that promote the reformulation of the policy.
The contentious politics of policy failure: A framework
for analysis
Understanding why policies fail has been a long-standing concern for implemen-
tation studies (Pressman and Wildawsky, 1973). Both policy success and failure can
potentially occur throughout the entire policy cycle, from agenda-setting and

Public Policy and Administration 36(2)
problem def‌inition, to policy formulation, adoption, implementation and evalu-
ation (Howlett et al., 2009). Policies are not discreet phenomena but a ‘‘continuing
f‌low of action’’ (Colebatch, 2018: 376) encompassing a regime whereby policies
build upon each other over time through shared ideas—organizing principles—that
af‌ford legitimacy, institutional arrangements that provide coherence or lack thereof,
and interest alignments that determine their governing capacity and durability
(May and Jochim, 2013: 434).
While the bulk of research has concentrated on conceptualizing and classifying
policy failures, their sources remain largely understudied (Howlett et al., 2015).
Policy failure has been predominantly associated with def‌icient policy characteris-
tics rather than with the political context surrounding the policy process. Yet, since
no policy exists in a vacuum, besides the non-achievement of the policy goals,
absence of support or contestation needs to be factored in def‌initions and empirical
evaluations of policy failure (McConnell, 2010: 356; see also May and Jochim,
2013). The contentious politics underpinning a specif‌ic policy may bring about
failure regarding both process and program. Policy failures af‌fect process when
policy proponents are forced to revise their preferred goals and instruments as they
fail to secure legitimacy for the policy and are unable to build a sustainable support
coalition. In the case of programs, policy failures occur when implementation does
not proceed as devised nor are the expected outcomes attained and when program
aims, values, and means of achieving them face opposition (McConnell, 2015: 236).
This article adopts an actor-centric approach to theorize and empirically identify
the ways in which the dif‌ferent stages of the policy cycle are riddled with an
ongoing battle for power between the interests that structure a policy’s bases of
support (change actors) and opposition (status quo actors). More specif‌ically, we
argue that grounding our analyses on the (gender) power-distributional implica-
tions of policy allows us to identify resistance as a crucial meta factor explaining
policy failure. Such an approach draws on the insights provided by studies on
gender equality reforms. These policies frequently experience implementation hur-
dles (Engeli and Mazur, 2018), including erosion, drift, and reversal (Mackay,
2014: 566), and face enduring opposition by actors seeking to maintain the unequal
status quo. As Waylen (2014: 212) pinpoints, ‘‘(s)howing how power relations are
gendered (. . .) improves our understanding of why institutional change does not
always bring the results intended or hoped for by institutional designers’’.
Opposition to gender equality policies inf‌luences all stages of policymaking and
can be fostered by a variety of political and social actors (Verloo, 2018). Ef‌forts to
maintain the status quo can be expressed as active resistance, like decisions directly
contravening the reform, or passive resistance, through non-decisions and non-
actions indirectly leading to inertia and evasion of responsibilities (Lombardo
and Mergaert, 2013). While a single act of resistance may not suf‌f‌ice to cause
policy failure, a juxtaposition of acts may be fatal. We outline below how resistance
may play out in the dif‌ferent stages of the policy cycle.
Concerning the problem identif‌ication and agenda-setting stages, actors engage
in discursive struggles directed at ‘‘steer(ing) action into the service of particular

Verge and Lombardo
interpretations of a policy problem’’ (Cavaghan, 2017: 47). Attention must thus be
paid to the ways in which (gendered) behavior is narrated and (gendered) political
outcomes (de)legitimized (Lombardo et al., 2009; Schmidt, 2010). Opposition
actors might indirectly resist a policy by not engaging in its debate or by defending
understandings of the problem and solution that thwart state action. A more direct
type of resistance is found when change is directly opposed discursively by denying
the need of the reform or by attacking it (Lombardo and Mergaert, 2013; Verge
et al., 2018). Such resistance tends to emerge when change claims do not resonate
within the institutional context (Freidenvall and Krook, 2011). Lack of shared
commitment with...

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