Implementing Targets in UK Government: A Multiple Streams Approach

As the federal election looms in Australia, the track records of both Coalition and ALP governments of fulfilling their election promises are under scrutiny. Sometimes, a promise gets lost or falls short in implementation. Todays’ post by Professor Christina Boswell and Dr Eugenia Rodrigues provides lessons from the UK on how policy can be reinterpreted, distorted or even subverted when applied at a local level or across different arms of government.  

This post originally appeared on Professor Boswell’s blog Politics, Knowledge & Migration

It has long been observed that policies can get lost in implementation. The best intended legislation or programme adopted by central government can get reinterpreted, distorted or even subverted when applied at local level, or across different areas of government. This was certainly the case with the British Labour government’s system of targets rolled out in the 2000s. Number 10 and the Treasury (the ‘core executive’) adopted a series of quantified performance targets designed to improve public services. And the government even monitored how far they were being achieved through rigorous reporting arrangements. But the targets were appropriated and applied in quite different ways across departments. What factors shaped how different parts of government implemented targets?

In our recent Policy & Politics article: Policies, politics and organisational problems: multiple streams and the implementation of targets in UK government, we develop John Kingdon’s idea of ‘multiple streams’ to try to understand differential implementation across sectors. The multiple streams approach suggests that policies are adopted where three elements converge: a policy, a problem, and amenable political conditions. We suggest this is a useful approach for understanding implementation, too. However, we suggest adjusting the approach in two ways. First, we focus on implementation in the departments or ministries responsible for implementing policy. So we adopt the perspective of organisations in the public administration, rather than focusing on (party) political dynamics. Second, we suggest that two factors are most important in shaping implementation: the strength of the core executive’s commitment to the policy; and the policy’s ‘match’ with organisational problems. In other words, does the proposed policy seem useful or appropriate to the organisation as a way of addressing what it perceives to be the challenges facing it?

We suggest that different combinations of political commitment and match with organisational problems yield four possible modes of implementation. First, where there is strong central commitment and the proposed policy matches organisational problems, then we can expect effective implementation. However, where the policy doesn’t appear to fit with the organisation’s perception of policy problems, then we can expect either weak implementation (if central government is not that committed either). Or, if the core executive is strongly committed to the policy but the organisation isn’t, then the organisation may engage in ‘decoupling’: complying with the policy in its rhetoric and formal structures, but in practice failing to carry out the changes required to implement it. A fourth possibility is that the core executive is not strongly committed to the policy, but the organisation is – in this case, we can expect ‘bottom-up’ implementation, driven by the organisation.

We examine this model by looking at the implementation of targets in carbon emissions, defence procurement and asylum. Our analysis draws on 54 interviews carried out with officials, special advisors and ministers. We find support for our model. In the case of asylum, initial attempts by the Home Office to decouple rhetoric and practice were constrained, as the core executive became strongly committed to overseeing the implementation of targets. In the case of defence procurement, the Ministry of Defence’s lack of enthusiasm – and a core executive keen to implement targets but reluctant to be too intrusive – resulted in a combination of decoupling and ineffective implementation. Finally, in the case of emissions targets, the Department for Climate Change (and its predecessor Defra) was keen to embrace the targets to enhance its organisational clout, and attract resources. However, weak political interest by the core executive meant that implementation of the target was largely ‘bottom-up’.

One of our key findings is that organisations can switch between modes of implementation, as core executive commitment changes over time, and as new organisational problems emerge. Our analysis also reinforces how difficult it is for core executives to steer implementation. Even where they set clear, specific targets and monitor them rigorously, there is huge scope for organisations to decouple formal compliance from informal deviation. As the asylum case shows, the core executive may need to resort to quite resource-intensive, intrusive – and damaging – forms of intervention to achieve its goals. In the case of the Home Office, one has to ask if this was a price worth paying.

Christina Boswell is Professor of Politics and Director of Research in the School of Social & Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Eugenia Rodrigues is Research Fellow in Science Technology and Innovation Studies, in the School of Social & Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.