When public services fail: a research agenda on public service failure

Steven Van de Walle (KU Leuven – Public Governance Institute, Leuven, Belgium)

Journal of Service Management

ISSN: 1757-5818

Publication date: 17 October 2016



The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on public service failure and develop a research agenda for studying public service failure alongside private service failure. The general services management literature has devoted relatively little attention to public services, whereas developments in the private service management literature have not reached public management.


This is a conceptual paper drawing on the public management literature. Different failure types and causes are discussed, including service failures that are specific to public sector settings. This is linked to the specific public context within which public services operate. Customer reactions to public service failure are then introduced, as well as service recovery.


Service failures in a public and a private context are different. There are different failure types and different standards of failure. Public management literature mainly studies collective and political reactions to service failure, whereas the private service management literature tends to focus on individual reactions. Finally, attention for service recovery was found to be very limited in the public services literature.

Social implications

Studying public service failure is important because failure can have dramatic consequences for customers, public organisations, and society. Social inequalities that arise as a result of public service failure need to have a prominent role in future research.


This paper develops the concept of public service failure and sets a novel research agenda for studying processes, causes, and consequences of such failure, as well as public-private differences.



Van de Walle, S. (2016), "When public services fail: a research agenda on public service failure", Journal of Service Management, Vol. 27 No. 5, pp. 831-846. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOSM-04-2016-0092

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