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Lessons to learn in policy implementation

Source: Public Sector Executive Aug/Sept 2014

Researchers Emma Norris and Marc Kidson at the Institute for Government talk to PSE about a new study that helps to identify the principles behind delivering effective policy implementation.

Over the years successive governments have struggled to translate policy ideas into effective change on the ground. So why is good policy implementation so difficult to achieve?

One problem is that there is no ‘silver bullet’ answer; instead, as usual, when it comes to government policy, there are a number of outside factors affecting this.

The Institute for Government (IfG), in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, however, has attempted to highlight how government can deliver policy implementation effectively.

The research – ‘Doing them Justice: Lessons from four cases of policy implementation’ – looked specifically at the way governments went about improving school performance through the London and City Challenges in the period 2003-11; implementing the 2001 commitment to end fuel poverty by 2016; rolling out Sure Start Children’s Centres in every community by 2010; and introducing automatic enrolment for pensions, staging from 2012-17.

In particular, the researchers identified 11 success factors for ‘effectively’ delivering policy implementation (see box out).

Emma Norris, a senior researcher at the IfG, and an author of the report, told PSE: “We argue that, fundamentally, you need to think about implementation while you are still developing policy. That provides the context for all the other lessons. If you don’t get that right and start thinking about how you are going to deliver the policy – so what kind of capabilities and skills you need to deliver – it is much more likely that you are going to run into implementation challenges further down the line.”


From all the case studies the IfG analysed, the organisation stated that the essential ingredients for effective implementation were: being clear about the problem; working with the rest of the system; keeping close connections with the implementers; and delivering continuity.

Norris added that there are two parts to delivering continuity: stability on the official level and stability on the ministerial level. She said: “It is a well-acknowledged challenge in Whitehall that there is far too much churn on an official level. You see people being made responsible for big reforms, and the implementation of a major policy programme who, nonetheless, will be moved on 18 months to two years into the implementation.”

PSE was told that if this happened in the private sector it would be seen as a huge mistake, especially if people had built up expertise, relationships and knowledge on projects. “By moving people away from a project you make the implementation of it that much more difficult,” said Norris. “So, clearly, there is a problem with official churn affecting continuity.”

With regards to ministerial continuity, Norris believed this was a slightly more complicated issue. “We are not saying that a churn amongst ministers automatically is problematic for implementation, but we are saying that when you’re thinking about re-shuffling junior ministers and secretaries of state you have to think about what the consequences of that might be with regards to implementation.

“We found in our research that ministers play a really important role in implementation and are critical to making sure that it happens effectively. In particular, junior ministers stood out in our case studies for being the people that really got on top of the detail – whether that was holding relationships with the professions, public services or departments; acting as an advocate for the policy; or making sure that once implementation was underway it stayed on track.”

Report co-author Marc Kidson, a researcher at the IfG, told PSE that whenever there is a re-shuffle, one of the costs, ultimately, is trying to get ministers up to speed, which can take time.

He also stated that when new ministers come into posts – even if they know they’re only there to keep the ship reasonably steady – most want to “feel like they’re having an influence on policy, even if it is into the implementation phase”.

“One of the things we’ve found, and feel is important in this regard, is that ministers and officials must build in the time to understand and ask why certain decisions were made at a policy-making stage,” said Kidson. “But in most cases doing a re-invention of the wheel when a minister comes in creates more uncertainty than it does useful novelty.”

Making policy fit

The IfG identified that a key to developing effective policy implementation is the need to fully understand the problem the policy is trying to solve.

Kidson told PSE that there is a temptation in policy making to start with a solution and then find a problem that it solves. “And one of the things that came out from the most successful case studies we analysed was the importance of really getting to grips with the problem on its own terms,” he said.

The researchers found that if there wasn’t a sense of priority in the problems policymakers were trying to solve, then during implementation various stakeholders had slightly different interpretations of what the policy was there to do – leading to a drift in focus.

“In the case of Sure Start Children’s Centres, for instance, although everyone was clear they were delivering the centres, a number of the stakeholders had different interpretations of what they were there to do – whether it be childcare or early year’s education or a range of parental support services,” noted Kidson. “And that actually led to some tensions between central government and how it was being delivered locally.”

Both Norris and Kidson told PSE that the success factors identified in the report were deliberately ‘common sensical’.

Norris said: “We wanted the lessons to act as a series of things people could understand easily and build into policy making processes. I do think there are instances where this is happening, as we’ve been able to highlight through looking at cases of success, but you could argue that some of these things do not happen yet on a systematic basis or often enough.

“We hope that by using real life, practical examples of where people have really understood the problem, and where they’ve avoided unnecessary levels of churn, hopefully they will help policymakers and implementers achieve them on a more systematic basis.”

Next steps

The IfG said one of the main aims of the report was to try to understand how the politics and publicity of policy implementation in government has necessary, and important, impacts as part of the democratic process.

“We didn’t try to take the view of the technocrats – trying to squeeze the politics out of implementation, and keep everything tidy and organised,” said Kidson. “Moving on from this, I think further work by the Institute will be looking at how you can have a good heuristic for policy making, ensuring sure you think about some of these design features at the policy-making stage, but which is realistic and grounded in the realities of what delivering policy in government is like.”

Success factors

The 11 success factors identified in ‘Doing them Justice’ are:

1.   Be clear about the problem

2.   Think about implementation whilst still developing the policy

3.   Get the right capability

4.   Be aware of the wider system

5.   Stay close to the implementer

6.   Be clear about where and how decisions are made

7.   Invest in routines

8.   Use junior ministers to drive progress

9.   Allow for and learn from variation

10. Focus on the long-term

11. Be prepared to rethink if the context changes dramatically

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