Can feminism help us with better policy implementation? Sure can!

Feminism has developed strong concepts that can also help strengthen and improve policy implementation. Particularly around giving space to the diverse array of actors in the policy space, who bring with them different cultures, norms and voices. A post by Assoc. Prof Gemma Carey, Co-director of Research at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW.

Despite decades of research on policy implementation, smooth implementation remains an enigma. Unintended consequences, exogenous factors like political decisions, intractable cultures and governance conundrums remain rife. The National Disability Insurance Scheme encapsulates many (if not all!) of the implementation challenges seen in complex policies. For example, a small-government agenda has led to cap on NDIA (the main implementation agency) staff, which has led to unintended consequences in terms of the quality of plans and supports participants are receiving. ‘Policy layering’ where old systems, norms and values continue to effect new agendas has drawn the scheme away from some of its early goals.

Clearly, we need some new ideas in the policy implementation space. Enter, feminist theory…

 Broadly, post-structural feminism (like other post-structural perspectives) recognises that knowledge, truth, rationality and power are all constituted in dynamic relationships, rather than a possession or something any one individual can lay claim to (Bacchi & Eveline 2010; St. Pierre 2000). It helps to emphasise different ways of knowing and doing and the contested nature of ‘meaning’. How is this relevant to policy implementation you ask?

 One of the major challenges facing implementors is the diverse array of actors in the policy space, who bring with them different cultures, norms and voices. The contemporary challenge for policy implementation is to harness this difference and diversity in a productive way.

 Feminist theories highlight the value in bringing together these diverse voices, and once valued different voices are likely to harnessed more productively. Groups have different and partial knowledge of policy problems. Accessing this different knowledge is the gain that offsets the heightened complexity of working in public policy. Importantly, post-structural feminism also highlights the ways in which the diverse groups drawn into the policy process can and should challenge authoritative ways of working on the basis of positionality. It demonstrates that authoritative ways of working, while powerful, are partial and need to be challenged. For those occupying more marginal positions, embracing this fact provides a greater authority to speak and challenge dominant paradigms and ways of working.

 Feminist theorists also bring to the fore concepts of social performance and performativity, consistent emerging work on the performance of collaboration within policy networks. When we think about social actions, such as collaboration or negotiation over policy implementation, we embody particular cultural and historical possibilities. At the same time, we also enact those possibilities. In other words, we speak from a set of historically-conditioned presuppositions which shape how we act/perform. In paying attention to these performances, we can understand how actors ‘construct relationships and erect boundaries’ in between themselves and others, and the ways in which they are shaped by the histories of particular individuals and groups, for example past experiences of collaboration or of other actors. This helps us to understand why certain dynamics emerge within policy networks which can inhibit or enable implementation.

Much has been made of the era of ‘New Public Governance’ in which we now find ourselves. This era is said to be characterized by complexity and plurality. But like that which has come before, there are no developments here that revolutionise our thinking on policy implementation (1). Feminist theory might spark that revolutionary thought by pushing beyond noting that complexity characterizes modern public policy, to helping us understand how to navigate that complexity.

For example, we can be more open to dissenting views amongst public servants, or non-government actors.  It enables us to shift from vague concepts of plurality to more concrete notions of diversity. We should actively seek out different, and particularly under-represented, voices and make space for them.  In contrast, feminist perspectives provide a roadmap for how to embrace complexity (i.e. valuing the diversity embedded therein), and seek value from it. Otherwise, complexity can seem daunting and impenetrable rather than valuable.  

A brief summary of how feminism differs from existing policy implementation schools of thought

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 10.34.25 am.png

For the longer and more detailed version of this post check out our new article in Evidence and Policy.


Althaus, C & Roberts, C 2016, Implementation: State of the Public Administration Theory and Why it Matters., Melbourne University, Melbourne.