New tools for thinking about policy implementation

Implementation of almost any policy now requires actions and engagement across multiple organisational domains with government, public, private and community partners. In today's post, Gemma Carey, Helen Dickinson and Sue Olney look to feminist theory for new ideas on how policy actors can navigate and influence the dynamic and increasingly complex policy implementation environment.   

We know that policies are only as good as their implementation, but this phase of the policy process is continually overlooked with sometimes catastrophic results (think Pink Batts). Implementation does not simply involve the spread of best practice or the adoption of particular tools and techniques, but is a much more complex process involving a range of different actors. Yet, policy implementation research has traditionally been highly rationalist in its thinking, portraying this process in a largely linear fashion.

Implementation of almost any policy now requires actions and engagement across multiple organisational domains with government, public, private and community partners. What this means is that implementation requires significant work across a range of boundaries- professional, organisational, sectoral, cultural, and knowledge-based. Yet this work is largely ignored within the literature and rarely documented comprehensively in practice.

In a recent paper we looked to feminist theory for new ideas about how to work across boundaries and across multiple domains to address policy implementation challenges. Table 1 shows how feminist theories offer an alternative to three recent waves of policy implementation/public management approaches - public administration, new public management and new public governance. 

Table 1: Approaches to policy implementation

Table 1: Approaches to policy implementation

What do we mean conceptually by working ‘across boundaries’ for policy implementation?

Within public policy literature, boundaries have typically been represented as material, stable and constraining entities.  For example, organisational boundaries are seen as limiting and inhibiting the degree to which agencies are capable of interacting, preventing information-sharing, shared accountability and performance regimes and communication practices.  Yet, boundaries play a role in identity building for individuals and groups [1]

Post-structural feminist theories help us to more deeply interrogate what boundaries are and how they operate. O’Flynn (2016) recently noted that much attention to the ‘boundary issue’ has focused on how to create collaboration and consensus. However, some boundaries may be coercive (for example, forcing individuals to conform to particular cultures and norms) and some boundary crossing practices may be disruptive (altering given ways of working).  Cross-boundary working may not always create additional value, efficacy or effectiveness as is suggested in the literature. We need to acknowledge these differences and develop competencies to navigate different forms of boundaries and their effects. Here, feminist perspectives draw attention to the importance of positionality.

Positionality refers to the concept that all ideas are inherently developed in response to others – there is no such thing as neutral or objective ideas.  Knowledge becomes valid when it includes a specific position with regard to context “because changing contextual and relational factors are crucial for defining identities and our knowledge in any given situation [2]. Cross-boundary working means working with individuals or groups with different positionalities. It should also mean that those groups articulate their contextual differences; that is, the contexts from which they speak and, in turn, the limitations of what they can ‘speak to’ (i.e. the claims they can lay to truth). This becomes important for negotiating power differentials between groups involved in policy implementation. Positionality helps to acknowledge the partiality of any one group’s knowledge and, in turn, can help to mediate any damaging effects of boundary work.

Feminist theorists also bring to the fore concepts of social performance and performativity [3]. 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, when working across boundaries we do so 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 sheds light on why certain dynamics emerge within policy networks.

Why is cross boundary working important?

The complexity of contemporary public policy issues, combined with changing citizen expectations and increasingly outsourced service delivery, has shifted the goalposts for public sector managers. Kay and Daugbjerg [4] argue that new public governance involves working both within a plural state with multiple actors delivering services and a pluralist state where multiple processes inform policy-making, requiring focus not only on interorganisational relationships but “interpretation of the policy instruments literature as a key driver of observed governance processes” [4]. This means that all policy work, whether design or implementation, involves working across departmental, organisational and sectoral boundaries. Despite this, boundary working is regarded as one of (if not the most) challenging aspects of contemporary policy ‘work’.

The fact that it is so challenging may make people resistant to embracing cross-boundary working. More specifically, the negotiation and persuasion involved in working across boundaries is rarely captured in measures of success for policy-makers or implementers, occurring instead in a ‘black box’ leading to achievement of specified outcomes in specified timeframes. Time spent negotiating trust, values and meaning within institutional and environmental contexts, as well as between individual policy actors, is not typically factored into the increasingly market-driven delivery of public services, despite evidence that it can reduce friction that might otherwise occur in implementation [4,8].

Feminist theories can enable deeper analysis of why different actors need to be brought together to solve problems. As noted above, groups have different and partial knowledge of policy problems. Accessing this different knowledge is the gain that offsets the heightened complexity of working across boundaries, although the extent to which this has been achieved in practice is variable [7]. Moreover, 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. It is not enough to simply remove barriers to participation; there is also a need for measures to empower individuals through education and economic benefit to question and reform the political-administrative system.

Importantly, poststructuralist feminist theories and ways of working have de-centred notions of authority (i.e. single ways of knowing or doing) [9,10]. Recognising that de-centred power can be productive allows for and enables a great diversity of perspectives, as well as assisting to negotiate diverse perspectives. When we consider that much policy work now involves working across organisational, institutional and sectoral boundaries, a plurality of meanings is both unavoidable and one of the chief advantages promoted within discourses of new public governance 11.  The question then becomes one of how best to secure the gains of this plurality, which brings us to our third question.

What does implementation in contested spaces involve?

We argue that feminist perspectives offer insights into the types of skills and knowledge required to navigate cross-boundary working. We focus on two factors in particular: language and the desire for unified frameworks.

Common language is often said to be a barrier to effective cross-boundary working [12,13]. While not denying that differences in language can make policy implementation more challenging, feminism has shown that arguing for a common language is not innocent, nor neutral [14]. Rather, it is riddled with presuppositions which may in actual fact hinder progress. When we allow different languages (and discourses) to exist, and also actively encourage an awareness of this, we give policy actors greater choice. As Weedon [14] suggests, "the lack of discursive unity and uniformity … means that the individuals [or groups implicated in implementation] have available to them, at least potentially, the discursive means to resist the implications of” policies or ways of working. Put more simply, in allowing different languages to co-exist we give groups greater opportunity to define their own roles in policy – to articulate their own positionality and subjectivities.

A feminist approach to implementation could lead the field to more effectively embrace a multiplicity of voices, subjectivities and ways of knowing and doing. In particular, these include more emotive ways of working. Increasingly, public administration is realising the need for ‘soft skills’ for working effectively within policy networks. These include brokering and coordination skills, as well as a willingness to undertake the emotional labour of working in a highly relational environment [15,16]. Emotions have, in the past, been seen as barriers to the type of rational, impartial decision-making which ought to govern policy processes [15,17]. However, working in contested relational spaces is emotive – particularly when we consider the different positionalities and subjectivities at play. 

Recently we have seen successive waves of attempts to capture the same challenges of cross boundary working (that is the different positionalities, languages and knowledges of different actors) [18,19]. These have included popular terms like co-design and co-production, which dominate the policy landscape but gloss over the intricacies of cross-boundary practices including issues of power, context and performivity. Rather than common frameworks, feminist perspectives suggest that we pay more attention to what is gained through diversity and difference and allow space to explore differences in knowledge, experience, context and power. Arguably, it is here that the value of cross-boundary working lies – a richness that will be missed if we seek only consensus, collaborative and commonalities. To do this, we need to listen, question the experiences and perspectives of others, value difference and diversity and recognise that our own knowledge is always partial [20].


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18. Carey G, Dickinson H. Gender in Public Administration: Looking Back and Moving Forward: Gender in Public Administration. Australian Journal of Public Administration. 2015 Dec;74(4):509–15.

19. Rhodes RAW. “Genre Blurring” and Public Administration: What Can We Learn from Ethnography?: Genre Blurring and Public Administration. Australian Journal of Public Administration. 2014 Sep;73(3):317–30.

20. Atwood M, Pedler M, Pritchard S, Wilkinson D. Leading Change: A guide to whole of systems working. Bristol, UK: The Polity Press; 2003.