Good Implementation

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Are the prospects for implementation of policy really so dismal? What might go into effective policy implementation? Here are several solutions designed to provide some guidelines to more effective implementation. The first stresses organizational efficacy and the second reflects the fear many have in large, expensive, and intrusive government. But first, let us ask what is actually involved with the implementation of public policy. What activities does implementation entail? Minimally, implementation involves these elements:

  1. Organization: Establish and staff a new agency or assign authority to an existing agency and personnel. This delegates the responsibility of implementation to a specific grouping. Often, the agency is given a program specified in the legislation. As discussed above, the organization, whether public or private, that is responsible for implementation is probably far away and the actual implementation is done at the local level. This poses a serious dilemma of social distance: those making policy are not those implementing programs.

  2. Interpretation: Translate legislative intent into operating rules and guidelines. This is very tricky and ambiguity can be ruinous. Ultimately, the judiciary may become involved and the legislators may need to later clarify their ends and means.

  3. Application: Not just the dedication of resources to doing the job but also the coordination of a new initiative or agency with ongoing operations. Note that cross-purposes, competition and jealousies, and cooperation may be at play.

Improving Implementation

We will conclude this chapter with two sets of prescriptions about how to improve public policy implementation. Political scientists Sabatier and Mazmanian have identified five conditions which they believe are necessary for effective implementation, which are adapted and augmented below:

  1. The policy must be conceptually clear and simple, theoretically sound, and stated in terms of desired changes achieved among target groups. It is vital that the means-ends analysis actually represent real world cause-effect relationships.

  2. The policy should clearly specify who does what and how. Clear directives and organizational structures should be issued in the legislative process.

  3. Effective and recognized leadership, skilled and experienced, should be committed to the policy.

  4. Active constituency groups and policy champions within government should support the policy throughout the implementation stage. Advisory groups and legislative oversight are helpful.

  5. The Executive priority given to the policy and its goals must not fade, nor can conflicting public policies or changing conditions weaken the implementation of the policy.

To these suggested by Sabatier and Mazmanian, let me add:

  1. The operational goals must be clear and feasible, easily understood by all concerned. The mission of agencies should be sharply and unambiguously defined. Datelines must be established and respected. Recall the maxim for successful real estate investing: location, location, location. For implementation, it is goals, goals, goals.

  2. The technical and budgetary means should be provided for the period of time needed to carry out the mission and achieve the goals. In particular, the financing of the policy must be secured for an adequate planning time-horizon.

  3. The impacts of the policy should be evaluated at specified intervals. The success or failure of achieving goals should be reckoned early and timely adjustments made. In particular, funds should be set aside for process evaluation (explained in the chapter on evaluation) on an ongoing basis. Evaluation should be seen as a device to enhance confidence in the policy.

A Conservative's Perspective

Conservatives have for generations warned about the increase in the size and scope of government. They have argued that if the pitfalls and costs of implementation were properly understood, many policies would not be authorized by liberals, no matter how well intentioned. Recognize that federal programs must be implemented locally, far away and removed, introducing the catchword that I call Remote Control. Posit that the further away the problem solvers are from the locus of the problem, the more likely the proposed solution will fail or even backfire. Implementation costs money and money is especially important politically when tax payers are in revolt. Remote Control runs against the American cultural grain.

In particular, conservatives distrust governmental authority and wish to minimize the scope and cost of governmental activities. This paradigm is inherently suspicious of governmental bureaucracy. Liberals, on the other hand, propose public policy solutions to a wide range of social problems, often ignoring the questions of the feasibility of implementation. Indeed, many well intentioned liberal programs have foundered on the shoals of implementation.

There are two general rules to follow. First is Laissez-faire, keep the government's hands off. Second, employ the principle of subsidiarity: let the local level control and implement policy whenever feasible. Minimize and localize the activities of government and the scope of public policy. Aspects of the conservative, Laissez-faire policy agenda have been enacted since the late 1970s, such as deregulation and decreased taxes, especially on returns to property of the rich.

The leading proponent of conservative economics in the United States, Milton Friedman, testified in 1969 before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress and made these remarks about how to put governmental programs in effect. This is what he said:

  1. When in doubt, stay out.

  2. If something must be done, understand the behavioral dynamics and change the rules of the game without spending money.

  3. If you must go further, finance activities but do not actually administer an agency. That is, hire a private contractor and do not try to produce the good or service directly through government. For example, have a private firm make jets through bidding on contracts; do not ask the Department of Defense to construct jet fighters.

  4. When government must finance something, make sure that the money goes directly to the beneficiaries, not through indirect channels.

  5. If government must finance and administer, competition must be permitted as a yardstick to gauge success and cost.

  6. When government must obtain resources, it should purchase them in markets and not commandeer them, as through the military draft and eminent domain.

  7. When government produces a good or service, it should, when possible, charge the users a pro rated cost, not give away the good or service.

  8. Only as a last resort, when all the above has failed, should government finance, administer, and deliver the good or service free of charge.

This leading conservative critic stresses the cost of government. Obviously, taxes depress other forms of spending, such as consumption and investment. These principles have spilled over to some prudent liberals who, while still seeking active and effective public policies, remain mindful of cost.

But public policy will necessarily spend money, and money is central to this subject. Accordingly, we now turn to the next phase of the public policy cycle, the budget.

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