On Scale: Is Bigger always Better?

When you have a successful pilot program, it’s commonly accepted that the next step is scaling it up. But is a larger scale always best?

What are the assumptions?

Scale plays such an enormous role in the success or failure of so many elements of public life: the structuring of organisations (government, businesses, schools, NGOs etc) and the infrastructure, programs and services they provide; economies, food systems, natural resource governance – it goes on. Given the impact of scale, I would argue that the value we place on scale doesn’t get as much play as it should in operational and strategic thinking, program design, funding, or evaluation.

Many of us are socialised with particular values about scale—without much examination of why we think that way, or what scale is the best suited to the particulars, context, and systems with which the program interacts.

What are the benefits and what do we lose at different scales?

When we do consider scale in program design and evaluation, we often think about it in a quantitative dimension: for example, the number of people our program reached, the diversity of landscapes it affected, or the breadth of organisations involved in service delivery. Or, we might contemplate measuring how much of the ‘problem’ the ‘solution’ resolves. And, in a fixed resource environment, the quantum of funding and people available to deliver the program is critical. We might sometimes consider the barriers and enablers to scaling.

And these are all important considerations. But perhaps we can also consider that scale itself may act as a barrier or enabler to achieving outcomes?

One of Wiltshire’s 10 criteria[1] for a public policy business case is to brainstorm alternatives and consider the pros and cons of each option and mechanism. If we do consider scale itself as a factor in achieving outcomes, it follows that considering what is gained and lost by delivering at different scales ought to be part of the process of brainstorming alternatives.

To illustrate, by running a larger scale program you might create opportunities for resource sharing and collaboration between organisations that simply wouldn’t exist in a program delivered at a smaller scale. But perhaps the bigger program becomes less able to achieve its objectives at a local level?

An example would be a national program to distribute funding to address local level needs. While it might be more efficient for a central, national organisation to distribute funding (rather than numerous smaller local organisations), it is also likely to create logistical issues, change the program’s responsiveness to local needs, and potentially compromise local relationships or stakeholders’ perceptions of fairness.

There are pros and cons of doing things at either scale – the desired outcomes should inform the decision about the scale at which to deliver.

Where can I find more thinking on this topic?

For more on this, Kelly Anne McKercher has a great article on ‘apolitical’, where they share their own thoughts and experience of the effectiveness of working at different scales and on ‘small experiments, knitted together’.



[1] Macdonald, D & Lesh, M. 2020. Evidence Based Policy Research Project: 20 Case Studies. Institute of Public Affairs

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