Can Implementation Work?

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Can Compromises Be Implemented Successfully?

Since the policy formulation process results in compromise and symbolic uses of politics, implementation may pass to the public agencies a great deal of discretion and confusion. The policy formulators might anticipate the difficulties and pitfalls of implementation, but, more likely, they have not adequately understood what happens as policy filters through agencies. Or choose not to understand and prepare.

The first question which comes to mind is this: Has the policy defined a specific plan for execution? What if the policy does not include a definite plan or procedure? Could a policy be vague? Inconsistent with other policies? Mission impossible? Consider carefully what Pressman and Wildavsky conclude in their classic study of implementation:

Our normal expectation should be that new programs will fail to get off the ground and that, at best, they will take considerable time to get started. The cards in this world are stacked against things happening, as so much effort is required to make them move. The remarkable thing is that new programs work at all. (122)

These authors chose as the logo for their book the Rube Goldberg contraption in which the inventor sets in motion a most unlikely chain of uncoordinated events. So much can, and likely will, go wrong. Pressman and Wildavsky inspire little confidence that desired results will be amply achieved.

Later, we will examine how to evaluate public policy, but one aspect of that subject deserves attention here. Consider this simple diagram:

Formulation + Implementation ---> Evaluation

There exists here a formidable conceptual problem. Policy-making, even under the best of circumstances, is a hypothetical experiment involving the construction of a causal model, implicit or explicit. In fact, these models may not exist and the theoretical basis of policy is often only a hunch or a concrete application of the unexamined conventional wisdom. Absent scientific scrutiny, not available in most public policy research, and chuck full of commonly held (often erroneous) opinion, we go forward with much guesswork, if not ideology, chicanery, and preconceptions.

When, and if, we looked back later, how can we determine what worked or failed to work? Consider a policy deemed ineffective in retrospect: Have we a good policy, badly implemented? Or good implementation of a bad policy? Or both are faulty? There are four possibilities:

  1. Sound policy, well implemented ---> success. Examples include the moon launch by NASA under Kennedy, revenue sharing under Nixon, and Head Start under Johnson. Energy conservation programs appear to have been very successful under Carter, while the rest of the energy policy failed. The Reagan Revolution quite successfully shifted income and promoted growth, as were its intentions, but ran up a monumental debt burden which threatens the long-term prognosis.

  2. Sound policy, badly implemented ---> failure. Carter's energy resources program may have sensibly identified coal and gas as transitional fuels to a renewable age, but the programs suffered from confused and contradictory implementation. Operation Breakthrough may have been a sound housing technology policy initiated by Nixon, but could not be successfully implemented at the local level due to poor program definition, local building standards, labor strife, and inadequate funding.

  3. Bad policy, well implemented ---> success (but rarely). Commissioner Robert Moses of New York was a genius at implementation, whether the policy was well formulated or not. He could build almost anything --- his way --- : highways, parks, housing, public buildings. Moses completely understood his mission and followed through doggedly and swiftly. He worked cagily with a general mandate, but was criticized as being unaccountable, especially to those left out or displaced by his physical development programs. But he got the job done and was not held accountable for side-effects.

  4. Bad policy, badly implemented ---> compound failure. The War on Poverty under President Johnson suffered just about every failure except budgetary deprivation. The administrator, Sargent Shriver, was astonished at his nebulous mandate and sporadic executive support, given little idea as to what to do or how to do it. The policy foundered. The Swine Flu epidemic led to a national inoculation policy by President Gerald Ford, that suffered the same fate, but at a much smaller scale. There was no epidemic, just overreation.

In practice, it may prove difficult to unravel the causes of policy success or, more likely, failure. Further, implementation may take a long time to accomplish and even longer for the impacts to appear. Needed political support and an adequate budget may not be sustained over the long term. Priorities compete and may change drastically over several years. Attention does not endure.

Politics and Implementation

Consider the larger politics of implementation. We should not expect that political influence is absent during the implementation process, as if politics abruptly stops with agenda setting and policy formulation. The War on Poverty showed little political maneuvering during the swift policy formulation stage, but plenty of political influence once implemented. The best model I know to explain the organizational structure of the conglomerated War on Poverty was that of old style ward-based politics, in which the ward boss doled out favors to his friends and punished his enemies by funding their local opposition. Under President Reagan, the office of Surface Mining, charged with implementing federal law on strip-mining, ignored the law with impunity, sending a clear message to the coal companies that they need not restore lands disturbed by their big shovels.

Local scandals involved the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in New York and New Jersey. Political pressure has allegedly been introduced in allocating funds to specific projects benefiting generous campaign donors to the re-election of New York's Senator Alfonse D'Amoto. Public housing agencies in several New Jersey communities have been taken over by HUD after investigations of corruption and favoritism.

The epidemic of savings and loan bank failures shows signs of political tampering with the regulatory process and has become the subject of extensive legislative oversight. Charles Keating, the chief executive officer of the failed Lincoln Savings Bank, spent millions of dollars in an infamous attempt to thwart the implementation of banking regulations. The Senators who appeared to aid Keating, later convicted of bank fraud, were severely embarrassed when the regulators complained publicly about undue influence brought to bear. The taxpayers picked up the sizable tab. Public confidence in government was again shaken.

Do not take for granted that simply because the President orders that a governmental agency do or cease something, that the order is fully obeyed. Noncompliance may not be typical, but it happens. This is why good public policy practice demands extensive consultation in advance with those who will later be charged with the implementation of the policy.

Such considerations of the role of implementation in the policy process are rare. There is a tradition to which we turn: Public administration and the study of bureaucracy.

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