Beyond the brick wall of policy implementation

Despite being touted the dismal science, the theory of implementation has much to offer. Today we look to policy studies and the way that policy studies researchers think about policy implementation. Lachlan McKenzie (@McKenzie_LD) and Catherine Althaus (@AlthausCat) of ANZSOG argue that policy implementation studies are stuck in a success-failure binary, and with that theoretical stagnation, has hit a ‘brick wall’ in terms of advancement. What lies through the window of such a wall?

Photo by mgkaya/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by mgkaya/iStock / Getty Images

Hitting the wall

Policy implementation is a critical – yet often misunderstood – component of public administration. Conceptualised through the lens of Pressman and Wildavsky (1973), scholarship has moved between top down and bottom up analysis of policy implementation, towards theoretical approaches that synthesise the two.

Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland: or why it’s amazing that federal programs work at all, this being the saga of the Economic Development Administration as told by two sympathetic observers who seek to build morals on a foundation of ruined hopes (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973)

In spite of this progress, the field of implementation studies has not usefully advanced beyond these debates, and is fixed in a success-failure binary. With its failure focus and theoretical stagnation, implementation theory has hit a brick wall.

Part of the problem is that theorising in public administration on policy implementation has not readily accounted for insights from other disciplines and fields of enquiry.

Beyond parsimonious theory

Many disciplines and policy areas such as education, health and transport document the significance of implementation to policy outcomes and have developed distinct theories of implementation which shape analysis and practice.

Take, for example, the case for implementation of municipal user fees policies in Canada. Significant pressure exists there to reduce the strain on municipal infrastructure and devolve responsibility and cost from the federal government to the provinces. The design of policy implementation must go beyond the generalised top down or bottom up public administration theories of implementation, and account for governance and legal frameworks around municipal authorities as well as the rational for user fees versus taxation. Here, many argue that legal and economic theory already hold the keys for unlocking policy implementation.

For theories of implementation to be useful for the practice of policy, they should draw on multidisciplinary insights specific to each case. In the case of municipal under fees in Canada, effective implantation must respond to the insights of legal and economic theory. Yet, this is not reflected in the existing canon of public administration.

In this way, the implementation literature has not fully utilised lessons from other disciplines, and is no longer pragmatic in its approach – failing to account for technical details and the ‘policy weeds’ – of individual cases. Public administration’s search for a parsimonious model has ultimately undermined the utility of implementation studies for practitioners.

A theory, or theories, of implementation are important in that they provide the frame through which we can understand and analyse this part of the policy process. If the brick wall in implementation theory persists, we risk repeating past mistakes or missing opportunities for lessen learning and policy innovation.

Public administration’s failure paradigm  

Public administration, as a field, is obsessed with failure. This started with Pressman and Wildaski's work which, ever since, has oriented scholars towards failure, not success. This focus on failure means that implementation studies has been described as “dismal science of policy analysis” and “a little depressing, because it is predominantly about implementation failure”.

This failure focus has shaped the lessons drawn from important cases of policy implementation, such as the building the education revolution (BER) program in Australia, which was a central component of the then Labor government’s response to the global financial crisis. At 14.7 billion AUD, the BER was the biggest ever investment in school infrastructure made by the Commonwealth government and would deliver new facilities to every school in the country. Plagued by negative political framing and bureaucratic challenges, the BER has been framed as a classic implementation failure. However, Australia did avoid rescission, and the BER was the cornerstone of the Commonwealth’s response to this problem. This is just one instance where the success-failure binary has obscured the potential positive lessons of the BER case.

The stilted state of theorisation has contributed to a declining view of implementation from within public administration scholarship, and we are fixed on a success-failure model which lacks nuance. Theorisation is frozen between top-down and bottom-up approaches, and scholarship providing fresh insights and value has hit a brick wall.

While this brick wall persists, implementation will remain the missing link to the practice of public administration.

Despite being touted the dismal science and the missing link, the theory of implementation has much to offer. Implementation theory developed as a direct response to practical policy failures and the literature continually quests to find lessons for success to help secure improvements to close the gap between expected policy promises and actual outcomes.

Implementation is far more than the dismal science of public administration. Indeed, the literature holds some hope for the future of implementation theory if one recognises the value of the implementation gap being open to interdisciplinary insights, the policy weeds and seeing unintended consequences as opportunities for learning rather than implementation failures.

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