Wavelength: Policy Implementation Lessons and Resources

Duane HerpergerDuane Herperger is President of ideaConnect Marketing and Communications and CAPAM’s communications consultant.
‘Wavelength’ articles explore ideas about issues and opportunities in public administration.

At CAPAM, we have debated whether any forward-thinking public policy could by itself be considered an innovation. Proponents would suggest that smart and creative policies provide a compelling vision from which many innovations are realised. For example, would the United States of America have been able to so rapidly advance its space program if not for President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 explicit goal and resulting policies towards landing an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade? Without this clear and determined direction, could such excellence have been attained? Certainly this suggests an instance where a public policy might by itself be considered an innovation. 

Conversely, an argument could be made that until an idea is successfully implemented, there is, in fact, no innovation. Imagine if President Kennedy’s vision had become mired in short-lived social and political will, insufficient budgets, inadequate resources and skills, or any countless number of other pitfalls that hamper execution. Would his policy have still been considered an innovation if its implementation had failed? While the debate continues, it remains a simple truth that the ultimate outcome for all governments is to have their public policies successfully put into practice. Unfortunately, far too often there is an “implementation gap” between what is envisaged by policymakers and the actual achievements delivered via services for citizens. So how does the public service craft policies to best avoid this gap? What resources are available to policy makers?
A first step might be to better understand the prevailing schools of thought around implementation throughout the years. The Centre for Effective Services in Ireland produced An Introductory Guide to Implementation1 in 2012 that includes a section outlining a number of theories. They include:
  • Policy Implementation Deficit, Pressman and Wildasky (1973) argued that successful implementation was reliant upon good linkages between levels of government and organisations at the local level. Fractured or missing linkages result in an ‘implementation deficit’.
  • Policy Implementation – Top- down or bottom-up debate, Sabatier and Mazmanian (1983); Lipsky (1980); Barrett & Fudge (1981); Hjern, Barrett and Fudge & Elmore (1982) debated the meritsof either a top-down or bottom-up approach to policy implementation.
  • Communication and Policy Implementation, Goggin, Bowman, Lester & O’Toole  (1990) promoted a ‘communications model’ considering policy-makingas an “implementation sub- system full of messages, messengers, channels, and targets operating within a broader communications system”.
  • Implementation of Policy - high or low levels of ambiguity and conflict, Matland (1995) suggested that policies had high or low ambiguity and high or low levels of conflict, resulting in different types of implementation.
  • Network Settings and Policy Implementation, O’Toole (1997) recognised the main barriers to implementation as being uncertainty, the absence of trust, and weak or limited institutions, concluding that in order to get new policies implemented they need to be accepted into the day-to-day work of those responsible for implementing them.
  • Human Infrastructure for Effective Implementation in Practice and Programmes, Fixen, Naoom, Blase, Friedman & Wallace (2005) concluded that ‘implementation is synonymous with coordinated change at system, organisation, programme and practicelevels, and that the ‘essence of implementation is behaviour change’. Therefore they focus on the ‘people’ aspects of implementation—staff selection, training, coaching and staff evaluation.
  • Factors that Influence Implementation in Practice Settings, Wandersman et al (2008) identified three factors that influence implementation in practice settings including individual characteristics, organisational factors and community factors.
  • Quality Implementation Frameworks for Multiple Practice Domains, Meyers, Durlak, Wandersman (2012) developed the Quality Implementation Framework (QIF), which provides a conceptual overview of the critical steps that comprise the process of quality implementation.


In order to better ensure that their policies come to fruition, many governments are arming their public services with tools that capture current theories on, and practical experiences with, policy implementation. The Australian National Audit Office developed a best practice guide entitled, Successful Implementation of Policy Initiatives with an accompanying Checklists of Key Implementation Considerations2. First released in 2006, the guide and checklists were updated in 2014 to incorporate new developments since that time. The authors identify some clear messages resulting from the guide’s development: 
  • strong and ongoing leadership is critical, regardless of whether the policy and its implementation sits with one entity or involves several;
  • there are essential capabilities and preconditions for implementation to succeed that involve an inclusive approach, sound processes, the effective use of resources and the consideration of implementation at every stage of policy development;
  • the identification and management of risk is not a ‘one-off ’ exercise, but a key element that is required at all stages of policy development and implementation; and
  • policies and programs, when implemented, require active management to be successful, and this involves: measurement, analysis, consideration of feedback and complaints, evaluation and review, calibration and adjustment.

The resource outlines key considerations for leaders throughout and provides both an introduction to, and the building blocks for, successful implementation:

Table 1: Australian Government Guide to Successful Implementation of Policy Initiatives

The focus on effective policy implementation has also assumed paramount importance in Canada, where a Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet (Results and Delivery) position has been created with the task of ensuring that the government’s priorities are monitored, tracked and delivered. Modelled on an approach espoused by Michael Barber and initiated in the United Kingdom, key points of the concept are covered in McKinsey & Company’s 2011 article, Deliverology: From idea to implementation3. The strategy focuses upon performance management elements and advocates three main components as illustrated in Table 2 below:

Table 2: Deliverology in Brief

Employing solid methodology towards crafting and rolling out policies certainly increases the likelihood that they will be successfully delivered. However, even the best-laid plans can be derailed by intangible factors. Policies that are contrary to cultural conventions may meet societal resistance; long-term policies may face a lack of political continuity; a nation’s economy may face a sudden or deep downturn over the course of policy implementation, and the breadth and scope of a policy may overly task available resources. The list of possible impacts is significant.

The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and Global Integrity in 2012 published a manual entitled, Improving Public Governance: Closing the Implementation Gap Between Law and Practice4 that explores the difference between laws that are on the books and how they are carried out in practice. The work focuses on implementation gaps in developing countries and at the local level, but also has application in a broader context. As part of their observations, the authors suggested that, “The ultimate cause for implementation gap is a sum of several common underlying factors in political, economic, and societal and cultural spheres.” Their proposition is summarised in the following table:

Table 3: Sources of Implementation Gap

The Australian Government’s Service Delivery Reform agenda sparked much dialogue over impediments to implementation and how to best circumvent these barriers. Focusing on the impact of cross-boundary collaboration, in 2010 the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Economics and Government published a policy brief entitled, Policy Briefs: Implementation Challenges5 that provides three different aspects of cross-boundary influences in achieving delivery results. The first piece, Working across boundaries: Barriers and enablers by Janine O’Flynn, sets the stage by suggesting that: “Implementation of public policy relies heavily on working across boundaries – organisational, jurisdiction, sectoral, and national. Lauded as critical to implementation success, effective cross-boundary work has become somewhat of a ‘holy grail’ of actual practice.”
O’Flynn acknowledges the importance of traversing boundaries as a feature in many 21st century governing models, but indicates that achieving effective cross-border collaboration is difficult because of four factors that can act as both enablers and barriers:
  • Formal Structures
  • Commonality and Complexity
  • People, Culture and Leadership
  • Performance, Accountability and Budgets

Numerous examples of failed policy implementation can be found on the Internet, many of which would have benefitted from some of the approaches and considerations previously identified. Often, these cases provide insights into why a policy has failed, but do not necessarily offer advice on how proper policy development might have helped to avoid such shortcomings in the first place. A good source of practical advice based on four in-depth case studies can be found in the Institute for Government’s 2014 report, Doing them Justice: Lessons from four cases of policy implementation6. This publication examines United Kingdom policy implementation associated with:
  • The London and City Challenges: a school improvement programme
  • The 2001 Fuel Poverty Strategy: a commitment to end fuel poverty by 2016
  • Sure Start Children’s Centres: the expansion of a targeted local programme to enhance the life chances of disadvantaged children
  • Auto-Enrolment in pension: the policy to boost private savings for pensions 

From these case studies, the authors provide crosscutting analysis of what has been learned and associated implications for implementation. Moreover eleven broader lessons for policy implementation are shared, each with clear, concise explanations and suggestions of alternate approaches for the case studies examined. The lessons include:

Table 4: Eleven Lessons For Policy Implementation


It is with an increasing sense of urgency that governments around the world are striving to ensure their public policies are effectively implemented. Certainly in democratic societies, delivery lapses to citizens are less likely to be tolerated and might have significant consequences. Going for Impact - the challenges of effective implementation is our focus in this CIR edition, and it is hoped that this glimpse of available resources will spur an imperative for further collaboration and sharing – one in which we all might access the vast knowledge and experiences of public sector and academic colleagues within the Commonwealth and beyond.

1 Burke, K. Morris, K. and McGarrigle, L. 2012. An Introductory Guide to Implementation. Centre For Effective Services http://www.effectiveservices.org/resources/article/introductory-guide-to-implementation

2 Australian National Audit Office. 2014. Successful Implementation of Policy Initiatives – Better Practice Guide (includes an insert – Checklists
of Key Implementation Considerations). Australian Government http://www.anao.gov.au/publications/better-practice-guides/2014-2015/successful-implementation-of-policy-initiatives

3 Barber, M. Kihn, P. and Moffit, 2011. Deliverology: From idea to implementation, McKinsey on Government, Spring 2011: 32-39 http://www.mckinsey.com/client_service/public_sector/latest_thinking/mckinsey_on_government/change_under_pressure

4 Nadgrodkiewicz, A. Nakagaki, M. and Tomicic, M. 2012. Improving Public Governance: Closing the Implementation Gap Between Law and Practice. The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), Global Integrity http://www.cipe.org/publications/detail/improving-public-governance-closing-implementation-gap-between-law-and-practice

5 O’Flynn, J. Kay, A. and Nevile, A. 2010. Policy Briefs: Implementation Challenges, Policy Briefs 9. Crawford School of Economics and Government, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. http://find.anu.edu.au/

6 Norris, E. Kidson, M. Bouchal, P. and Rutter, J. 2014. Doing them Justice: Lessons from four cases of policy implementation. Institute for Government. http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/publications/doing-them-justice