The difficulty of turning policy into action has been identified in research since the 1970s. When implementation was first studied there was an assumption that implementation would happen automatically once the appropriate policies were set out. However when this did not happen research sought to explain implementation 'failure’, and concluded that implementation was a political process similar to policy formulation (McLaughlin 1987). More recent research has sought to understand how implementation works in general and how its prospects might be improved (O Toole 2000).
As implementation research evolved, two schools of thought developed as to the most effective way of describing implementation processes, either top-down and bottom-up. Those who support top-down approaches see the policy designers as the main actors and policy implementation processes as flowing downwards from the state structures. Those who support ‘bottom-up’ approaches argue that the target groups and those who deliver the services should be seen as central to the process (Matland, 1995).
Among the key factors identified as crucial to the successful implementation of policy is commitment. It has been argued that even with the most logical policy imaginable, which passes any analysis of its cost versus benefit, if those responsible for carrying it out are unwilling or unable to do so, little will happen (Warwick, 1982).
Capacity is another recognised factor. It may seem obvious that a minimum condition for successful implementation is to have the necessary administrative and other abilities to do the job and indeed roughly half of the 300 studies surveyed by O'Toole (1986: 189) feature resources, and in particular administrative resources, as a critical variable. It is argued that the capacity of political, administrative, economic, technological, cultural and social environments must frequently be built up to be capable of delivering the policy (Grindle 1980). Capacity building has been defined by Savitch (1998) as the total (structural, functional and cultural) transformation of government in order to mobilise all available resources to achieve policy objectives.
The support of clients and outside coalitions is another critical variable contributing to the successful implementation of a policy. One of the first steps in a successful implementation process is therefore the identification of the key stakeholders from a wider range of stakeholders (Elmore 1979).
Mc Laughlin (1987) discussed the difficulties associated with policy implementation and argued that of the key factors, capacity, although a potentially difficult issue to overcome, is something that can be addressed through training, funding or the employment of consultants to provide missing expertise. But in the absence of commitment, or the motivation and beliefs that underlie an implementer’s response to a policy's goals or strategies, very little can be done to ensure the successful implementation of the policy intervention (McLaughlin 1987).
Case study research carried out to examine the factors that contribute to successful implementation of a major policy decision in Malta identified three decisive factors. they were: (1) the decision taken to locate political responsibility for the initiative in the Office of the Prime Minister; (2) the presence of a strong project management/team dynamic; and (3) the type and level of commitment shown to the policy initiative at all levels (Giacchino 2003).
The vital contribution individuals can make in the implementation process has been highlighted by other authors who suggest that often change is a problem of the smallest unit. At each point in the policy process, a policy is transformed as people interpret and respond to it. What actually is delivered or provided under the aegis of a policy can often depend on the individual at the end of the line, or the "street level bureaucrat" (Weatherley & Lipsky, 1977).
The findings of previous research studies were supported by the NESF (McGauran and Moore 2007) which also identified a number of additional key issues for implementation of policy;
The NESF has referred to Ireland’s record in the design of social and economic policy as progressive and innovative. Success at the policy design stage has been met with varied success at the stage of implementing that policy however, and implementation has been termed ‘piecemeal’ and at best ‘incremental’ by the NESF (NESF, 2007). Ireland is not alone in this and in practice the implementation stage is often the most difficult one facing governments. The NESF has stressed the fact that implementation does not happen in a vacuum but rather is constrained both by the external environment and by the institutional context within which the policy is being implemented (NESF, 2007, McGauran & Moore).
In its 2008 report, Towards an Integrated Public Service, the OECD cited a lack of implementation skills as one of the main challenges facing the Irish public sector (OECD, April 2008). The organisation drew attention in particular to the segmented nature of the public service and the challenges this posed for policy development, implementation and service delivery. It suggested that responding to more complex, cross-cutting issues will require an integrated public service that acts increasingly through networks rather than top-down structures and further interaction is needed between public service organisations and with stakeholders at local, national and international levels, and across these levels (p. 25)
The report recommended the deepening of project management and implementation skills across the public service, in particular for smaller government agencies and for local government. It defines the implementation challenge facing Ireland in the coming years as stemming from the necessity of meeting increased expectations with constrained resources. In order to meet these expectations, responsiveness will be essential and mechanisms for incentives will have to be developed.
The OECD report summarised the key issues for successful implementation in Ireland in the areas of management, accountability, budgeting, engagement, innovation and politics. It called for government bodies to develop their capacity in the area of implementation and to undertake reform initiatives similar to those carried out in Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands (p. 35) including the development of;
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