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What to do when Group Policy shows an access denied message

IT administrators might encounter an error message that states 'access denied' when working with Group Policy. There are a few different steps to fix a problem like this.

Group Policy is one of the most versatile and powerful management mechanisms available in Windows and Windows Server, so administrators need constant access to it.

Systems administrators use Group Policy to build and enforce managed configurations for systems and users. Tools such as the Local Group Policy Editor affect the Group Policy settings for local systems, while administrators can manage enterprise-wide Group Policy settings using the Group Policy Preferences through the Group Policy Management Console in an Active Directory Domain Services infrastructure. Administrators can also manage Group Policy settings remotely through the Remote Server Administration Tools pack and Windows PowerShell.

Group Policy allows admins to run scripts -- such as PowerShell scripts -- allocate user access to certain resources and services, prevent users from accessing other resources and services, and perform a wide range of simple tasks such as opening a specific network homepage for every user.

Sometimes when an admin attempts to perform various management actions, the Group Policy interface will show a message stating that their access has been denied. Group Policy administrators need to rectify this issue as soon as possible to avoid a variety of disastrous outcomes.

What to do when Group Policy shows Access Denied

Two general situations can occur in which access to Group Policy is denied.

The first scenario is that Group Policy users might see a Windows pop-up with an error message such as the following:

Group policy error, you do not have permission to perform this operation. Details: Access Denied.

Generally, such access errors are annoying but not critical. Access errors can prevent a user from applying or changing Group Policy, but that primarily affects system setup. A more troublesome situation can occur when an administrator's access is denied during a system troubleshooting effort such as responding to a Group Policy-related help desk ticket.

For example, Group Policy access errors are reported when users try to use the Local Group Policy Editor on a Windows device. The device is typically joined to Windows Active Directory and the user is logged into the device. The problem is typically that the user is logged in as a regular user with a domain user account. In actual practice, the user needs to be a member of the local administrator's group and run the Group Policy tool -- such as gpedit for the Group Policy Editor -- using the Run as Administrator option.

Users who do not have admin access must contact a responsible systems administrator to be included. The administrator will then delegate permissions to the user so that they can perform Group Policy tasks. If the user is a responsible administrator with valid authority to manage Group Policy settings, chances are that the administrator is not logged on with an administrator account or is not running a Group Policy management tool as an administrator. Using a suitable account and running the Group Policy management tool in administrator-mode will typically fix this oversight easily.

A second access issue can occur when the Windows Group Policy Client service (gpsvc) is not running or is missing on the computer. When this occurs, regular users will not be able to sign in. This results in an error such as the following:

The Group Policy Client service failed the logon. Access is denied.

Access to the Windows Registry will require an administrator account or privileges on the computer.

The typical fix for this access error involves manipulating the Windows Registry to see that the GPSvcGroup multistring value is present in the SvcHost registry key and adding the GPSvcGroup entry to the list of other services in the key if the service is missing. Access to the Windows Registry will require an administrator account or privileges on the computer.

However, any kind of registry manipulation can be risky for the system and should be attempted only by experienced systems administrators well-versed in registry management issues. Refer to Microsoft's documentation for details on editing the registry and adding services safely. Making incorrect changes to any Registry setting can cause the system to behave unexpectedly or fail to start. Any Registry work should be preceded with a full system restore point before making Registry changes.

Group Policy best practices

Although Group Policy management approaches can vary dramatically between businesses and administrators, common best practices can help ease Group Policy problems, and include practices such as the following:

  • Do not modify or add to the default domain and controller policies.
  • Exercise sound organizational unit (OU) design.
  • Do not implement Group Policy Objects (GPOs) at the domain -- or root -- level.
  • Use clear and descriptive GPO names.
  • Use more and smaller GPOs instead of fewer larger GPOs.
  • Do not disable GPOs.
  • Avoid using blocking policy inheritance and enforcement -- rely on good OU design instead.
  • Apply change management principles to Group Policy administration.
  • Back up and protect GPOs just as any other critical system files.

Stephen J. Bigelow, senior technology editor at TechTarget, has more than 20 years of technical writing experience in the PC and technology industry.

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