The lines between policy development and implementation are blurred.
The policy cycle
Policy development and implementation are often described as distinct and separate stages within policy cycles. In practice, the lines between policy development and implementation can become quite blurred.
During the policy development stage, both political and technical issues have to be addressed. Political issues include getting buy-in, setting a vision and managing opposition. Technical issues include gathering evidence and data of what works, implementation planning and other mandatory steps required in government policy development, including public consultation.
There is no good way to implement bad policy. Poor policy design is a common reason for poor implementation. Likewise, a well-designed policy can be poorly implemented (Gold, 2014).
Thinking about policy implementation during policy development
Thinking about how a policy will be implemented should be an integral feature of the policy development stage. Policy makers and front line services need to be involved in the entire policy process. Policy initiatives tend to be more effective when they are designed with direct front line input. Policy professionals do not always have training or direct experience in delivering frontline services. Practitioners can provide a real world perspective on the feasibility of a particular policy initiative.
Why policy implementation differs?
Priorities and actions need to be clearly articulated during the policy development process.
The diffuse nature of policy
There is often a gap between the intentions of policymakers and how a policy looks when services are delivered to citizens. Government policy is often articulated as high level goals and objectives. A range of stakeholders are involved in implementation, for example institutions, agencies, service providers and intermediary organisations, before they have an impact on citizens. This can make policy implementation very challenging and diffuse.
Priorities and actions need to be clear and during the policy development process, to ensure that diverse stakeholders can interpret and implement them consistently at a national level.
Complex context for policy implementation
The context for policy implementation is crucial. When implementing policy, many other implementation efforts may be occurring at the same time in different parts of the system. Coherence can help to create a climate for implementation success.
Legislation may be required before a policy can be fully implemented, or there may be a need to ensure coherence with existing domestic and international legislation.
There may be synergies with, or divergence from other government policies or strategies. Policies may interact with each other, producing new, unplanned and sometimes unintended consequences. More complex governance and accountability arrangements are required to oversee policy implementation.
What enables implementation of policy?
There are many similarities between implementing policies and other types of interventions. Implementation enablers are important for policy implementation. Examples include leadership, communication and feedback mechanisms.
Leadership is needed at all levels of the system for policy implementation. From a political perspective, the appropriate level of leadership is needed to reshape mandates, resources, structures and programmes. Consistency in leadership has also been suggested as an enabler of implementation, such as fixed-term positions for senior government department officials, to ensure continuity and strengthen relationships. The literature on leadership for policy implementation also points to the need for a ‘craftsman’ style of political leadership, which has a focus on building and sustaining relationships, managing complexity and interdependence, and managing multiple and conflicting accountabilities.
Communication plays an important role in facilitating successful implementation of a policy and should be a core part of policy development from the beginning and throughout the stages of implementation. Systematic communications are important to share information and feedback on how implementation is progressing across sites, and to share wins and important policy milestones to maintain buy-in and motivation of stakeholders.
Feedback mechanisms should be established between policymakers and front-line practitioners once implementation has begun, to ensure the policy is being implemented as intended, unplanned consequences are addressed efficiently and to support the learning capacity of the system. Feedback mechanisms can include regular, standardised reporting arrangements from front-line services to oversight structures for the policy, and policy reviews carried out at key points in the policy life cycle, for example mid-term reviews.
Guides to policy development and implementation
Implementation of programme and policy initiatives: Making implementation matter (Australian National Audit Office, 2006) is a better practice guide for public service managers, covering themes such as implementation planning and monitoring and review. Click here
A practical guide to policy making in Northern Ireland (OFMDFM, 2016) is a guide for public servants working on developing or reviewing policy, to help them to ensure that policy is evidence-based, focused on outcomes, forward looking, ‘joined up’ and meets citizen needs. Click here
Implementing public service reform: Messages from the literature (Colgan, Rochford & Burke, 2016) highlights emerging messages from research and experience about implementing public service reform. Click here