Policy Implementation

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

The A—Z of Implementation

There are a range of terms used when writing or talking about implementation and in implementation science. This glossary provides a short definition for each of these terms.

Adaptable components

Elements of an intervention which may be tailored to local settings during implementation without undermining the integrity of the intervention itself.

Barriers

Factors which hinder the implementation process and reduce the probability of successful implementation.

Capacity

The ability or power to do, understand or absorb something. This can apply to an individual, a team, an organisation or a whole system.

Coaching

A formal, typically short-term, arrangement between a coach and an individual focused on developing work-related skills or behaviours.

Community

A group of people living in an area or having characteristics in common (e.g. city, neighbourhood, organisation, service, business, professional association); the larger socio-political-cultural context in which an intervention is intended to operate.

Consultation

The action or process of formally discussing something with stakeholders, generally asking stakeholders a relevant question and receiving answers to that question. While the views of stakeholders may then be used to influence decisions, there is no commitment or requirement to do so.

Context

The set of circumstances or unique factors in which implementation takes place. This can refer to both the wider, systemic context, as well as the specific setting in which a specific intervention will be implemented.

Continuous Improvement Cycles

Ongoing use of emerging data and evidence on outcomes and implementation, and using that information to learn from experience, inform future implementation and improve outcomes. Progress is, therefore, achieved in an incremental manner over time.

Core Components

Indispensable elements of an intervention or implementation plan, which cannot be changed without undermining it. All core components should be delivered with fidelity.

Data-Based Decision Making

Using processes for collecting and analysing different types of data to guide decisions with the aim of improving outcomes on an ongoing basis.

Diffusion

A process by which an intervention is communicated through certain channels over time. The spread of ideas through diffusion is generally a passive process, following an unpredictable, unprogrammed, emergent and self-organising path, e.g. word of mouth.

Dissemination

An active, negotiated and influenced means of spreading an intervention or information about an intervention to relevant target groups.

Enablers

Factors which increase the probability of successful implementation.

Evaluation

A planned investigation of a project, programme, or policy used to answer specific questions. It can be related to design, implementation, results, and outcomes (cause and effect) of an intervention.

Evidence-Based Interventions

Practices, programmes, policies, strategies or other activities that have been empirically shown through scientific research and evaluation processes to improve outcomes to some degree.

Fidelity

Delivering an evidence-based intervention exactly as intended by those who developed it.

Framework

A structure, overview, outline, or system consisting of various descriptive categories and the presumed relationships between them.

Implementation

The carrying out of planned, intentional activities that aim to turn evidence and ideas into policies and practices that work for people in the real world. It is about putting a plan into action; the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’.

Implementation Plan

A plan outlining the key activities, responsibilities, timelines and other important information required to achieve the desired outcomes from implementing an intervention.

Implementation Readiness

The extent to which organisations and individuals are both ‘willing’ to, and ‘capable’ of, implementing any specific intervention.

Implementation Science

The scientific study of how interventions are incorporated into service settings. It seeks to identify activities, contexts and other factors that increase the likelihood of successful implementation and lead to improved outcomes for people.

Implementation Strategy

Any specific method or action aimed at overcoming barriers, increasing the pace and effectiveness of implementation, and sustaining interventions over time.

Implementation Team

A group or structure that oversees, supports and attends to, moving an intervention through the stages of implementation. They actively use strategies to facilitate implementation.

Inputs

Resources needed to carry out activities and outputs.

Intervention

Any policy, practice, service or programme that is being implemented. It can be a change to something already in existence, or an entirely new intervention.

Leadership

The action of leading a group of people, or the ability to do this. This does not just apply to leading a whole organisation or system – leadership can take multiple forms and can occur at any level of an organisation or system.

Logic Model

An adaptable tool that describes the theory of change underpinning an intervention, a programme or a policy. It allows the user to systematically work through the connections between the components of an intervention or process, usually in graphical format on a single page.

Mentoring

A formal or informal arrangement which typically involves an ongoing relationship of support for significant transitions in knowledge, thinking and skills.

Model

A deliberate simplification of a phenomenon. Models are intended to be descriptive and need not be a completely accurate representation of reality to have value.

Monitoring

The routine and systematic collection of information against a plan. It makes use of existing data and information about inputs, outputs, outcomes, or about outside factors affecting an organisation or project, with a view to ongoing cycles of improvement.

Needs Assessment

A process which clarifies the extent to which needs, as well as enablers and barriers to meeting those needs, are accurately known and prioritised by an organisation or group of people.

Outcomes

Intended or unintended changes that occur as a result of implementing interventions. These changes can occur at the level of individuals, groups, organisations or population, and can occur in the short-, medium- or long-term.

Outputs

Key activities and areas of work that will help to achieve the desired outcomes.

Organisational Culture

The norms, values and beliefs that exist and govern behaviour within an organisation.

Resources

A stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organisation in order to effectively implement an intervention.

Stakeholders

Anyone who is affected by or is involved in the intervention being implemented. This includes staff, public, clients, managers, professional bodies, unions, educators, policy-makers and funders.

Strategies

Methods or actions that aim to overcome barriers, increase the pace and effectiveness of implementation, and sustain interventions over time.

Sustainability

An intervention can be considered to be sustainable when not only have the process and outcomes changed, but the thinking and attitudes behind them are fundamentally altered and the systems surrounding them are transformed as well. In other words, the intervention has become an integrated or mainstream way of working rather than something ‘added on’.

Synthesis

A structured process where relevant information and evidence on a topic is gathered, reviewed, assessed and brought together to support decision making.

Theory

A set of analytical principles or statements designed to structure our observation, understanding and explanation of the world.

Theory of Change

An explicit, step-by-step statement of the expected relationship between the intervention and the outcome, i.e. why providing input X should lead to a change in outcome Z, by way of output Y.

Vested Interests

A special interest in maintaining or controlling an intervention, arrangement or institution, usually for personal gain.