The unnecessary divide between policy and implementation

For government to successfully deliver, implementation must have a greater role in the policy making process

Policy versus implementation

Commenting on Universal Credit[1] last year, former Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude delivered a damning verdict[2]: 'It's a brilliant policy and it's completely the right thing to do. But the implementation was pretty lamentable...'

Current reports suggest that £425 million has been spent so far on the programme. It is likely that at least £140 million worth of IT assets will need to be written off.

While Maude may be justified in pointing to the failings, his stark divide between 'brilliant policy' and 'lamentable implementation' is at best unhelpful, and may entirely miss the point.

The challenge for government

Too often, government ideas seem to fall at the ‘implementation hurdle’. High profile examples include Blair’s NHS IT system (abandoned completely and thought to have cost the taxpayer over £10bn) and more recently Cameron’s immigration pledge (far from reducing immigration levels ’to the tens of thousands’, immigration has increased).

While some policies seem like good ideas, in practice they are evidently un-implementable. If this is the case, then surely it is unfair to place the blame at the door of those inheriting a policy which – no matter how substantial the resources or funds thrown at it – cannot be operationalised. Of course, implementation of any policy can and does go wrong. But if the scale of the change were more fully understood and intertwined with the development of the policy, perhaps the product would be more likely to be achieved.

The role of government is important when considering the divide between policy and implementation. Whitehall often distances itself from implementation. When a policy goes through the process of becoming an Act of Parliament, it undergoes political scrutiny but little in the way of implementation testing. When civil servants and subject matter experts are not invited to critique and improve the bill from an implementation perspective, it stands to reason that they may not have the enthusiasm or capability required to implement a policy that is already heading for failure before it leaves the Houses of Parliament.

A new way forward?

It does not have to be this way. King and Crewe, in their book 'The Blunders of our Governments', attribute much of the success of the London Olympics 2012 to planning, highlighting that 'at least as much attention was paid to implementation as to policy'. Despite intense media pressure, the Olympics delivered on time and to budget.

The disconnect between policy and implementation has to be challenged in order to address the ongoing lack of accountability associated with failure. So what if we started thinking about policy making differently? What if some initial implementation planning went hand in glove with policy formation and political strategy – and if this was a core expectation of the policy development process? Then you could truly reflect on what counts as ‘brilliant’ policy. 



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