Implementation Defined

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What is Implementation?

The jockeying for a place on the agenda and the debate of the best policy to formulate is now behind us as we move to the third phase of the policy cycle. The policy-makers have now gone on to those things which awaited attention while other issues were in the policy process. We might have already witnessed a disturbing rancor, confounding misunderstandings derived from lack of clarity in problem definition, outright conflict among irreconcilable positions, downright befuddling compromises conveniently forged in the heat of late night argument, and inadequate marshalling of intelligence and information. The spectacle of the policy debate is over, temporarily, and the intellectual and political churning of defining a workable strategy has quieted down. A policy has been authorized. Now what? The policy must be applied in real world situations: Implementation, an often overlooked detail.

Most adherents to the analytical and institutional schools overlook the issue of implementation entirely, relegating it to the distinct field of public administration. Implementation until recently was as neglected as budgeting and evaluation. The contemporary study of public policy has included the subject of implementation, but the attention is devoted to case studies and some comparative illustrations.

Here, we must not naively assume that whatever policy has been formulated and authorized will be put into effect by loyal, dedicated, disinterested career administrators. The perspective of the policy cycle requires that we follow closely what happens next, implementation.

Defining Implementation

The standard dictionary definition of the term implementation is simply this:

To put into effect according to some definite plan or procedure.

Think of implementation as a deliberate and sequential set of activities directed toward putting a policy into effect, making it occur. Here are some synonyms: achieve, effect, fulfill, discharge, set in motion, do, establish, accomplish, finish, realize, actualize. Something must now actually happen to the authorized policy.

Within the public policy cycle, we can provide some context to a working definition of implementation:

Public policy implementation consists of organized activities by government directed toward the-achievement of goals and objectives articulated in authorized policy statements.

Implementation inspires little interest among the general public, the media, the elected officials, and even students of public policy. In particular, the electronic media (television and radio) fails to cover the nitty-gritty of organization-building required for successful implementation. Political leaders regard this as the province of the executive branch. The president or governor has not gone to the travail of being elected so he or she can tend to the tedious details of administrative agencies. Other existing agencies, public and private, may take a keen interest, however, for new programs represent competition for resources and turf wars. Academics studying public policy consider implementation the most neglected area of study and claim that implementation considerations are sorely needed for social policy, in particular, to work. Yet the accumulated body of available research remains slim, mostly case studies done in isolation from theory.

Case Study: Planning Moscow

In theory and in practice, implementation gets short shrift. Let me provide an illustration of what could happen when high-minded policy becomes concrete with little attention to the details of making the policy happen right. The attention to policy formulation and the disregard for implementation provides an explanation of why so many sections of Moscow outside the city core appear so unappealing despite the classical form of the urban region itself, the overall policy framework within which the city was built.

After the Russian Revolution, the Stalin-backed planners basked in the glory of the opportunity to utilize massively centralized authority to design a shining utopia, their capital city. Ironically, they chose the conceptual lines suggested by classical British town planners for London, the premiere capitalist city of the era. They thought big and had but one constituent to please, Josef Stalin. Hitler's plan for Berlin reflects the same situation. (Hall, ch. 6)

The grand design (the policy) was heralded and greeted with much international approval and fanfare. Work proceeded (implementation). However, what had not been well defined were such overlooked details as the particular buildings themselves, the location of such mundane facilities as waste disposal sites, street furniture (such as park benches), the contours of the natural terrain, public access to rivers, lighting, pedestrian rights-of-way amidst high density development, and so forth. Yet, the overall physical design pattern was quite clearly defined. General planning goals were published, but detailed guidelines for implementation were absent.

The task of hunkering over specifics was left to poorly trained staff, derisively called apparatchiks, who had little vested interest in what happened, had scanty specific instruction, and were not backed up by the same authority which commissioned the plan. The inhabitants, the citizens, of course, had no role in the essentially totalitarian planning process. The grand planners were busy doing other things, such as quelling the disquiet of the provinces such as Chechnya who got nothing while considerable resources were devoted to Moscow.

The end result is a city which looks nice on a map but does not feel comfortable on the street, outside its center. Housing is particularly neglected. Other regions still suffer from the accumulation within the overgrown metropolis of Moscow, now what planners call a primate city, out of proportion to the rest of the country.

The lesson is this: The grand designers of policy often have given little serious attention to exactly how the goals will be achieved in the real-world setting. And things often unravel at this stage. Like the planners of Moscow, students of good public policy practice ignore this phase at the peril of defeat of what might or might not be otherwise sound public policy.

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The Public Policy Web, July 12, 2001
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
October 27, 2002