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The public policy-action relationship


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Most of the literature on the policy process focuses on how policy is made: the processes of negotiation and bargaining that take place, the struggle between rationality and politics, and the tension between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches. This unit is concerned with a rather different set of dynamics: the relationship between policy and what actually happens in the process of delivery. Formal, sequential descriptions of the policy process relegate this phase to the idea of implementation, which some writers have termed the neglected afterthought in the policy cycle. It is a stage of the policy process that has received scant attention in academic circles, and one that has traditionally been of rather less interest to civil servants and other officials than the task of giving policy advice. This is in part because the status and career advancement of such officials tend to be linked to their closeness to ministers or other policy makers in the process of policy formulation, rather than to public services in the process of implementation and delivery. It is also because of the temporal and spatial dynamics of policy making. Policy formulation tends to take place in the corridors of power in capital cities or the head offices of public agencies, whereas implementation happens in what are often termed ‘the provinces’ or at ‘street level’. By the time a policy is being rolled out, those at the centre are already focusing on the next problem or policy innovation and staff may have moved on to an entirely different policy area. This has been neatly summarised in the subtitle of one book, which sets out to explain ‘How great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland; or, why it's amazing that Federal programs work at all’ (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973). Yet, clearly, implementation is crucial to the success of any policy.

Political success for governments and for individual ministers or political leaders – and even sometimes for chief executives of agencies – tends to be viewed in terms of being seen to do something, whether launching an initiative, introducing a new policy or responding to a problem, rather than looking back and perhaps learning from the mistakes of past policies.

For these reasons, among others, this unit is not concerned with technical questions about policy instruments and levers, but with a deeper question: how does change happen as a result of new policies? The aim is to explore the relationship between policy and action – in other words, the interconnection between a new policy and any shifts in the practice or relationships that shape the ways in which public services are delivered. This theme is explored by introducing a number of models. It is important for managers to become ‘multi-lingual’, be able to use different models in order to describe and explain what is happening and to learn from the process in order to improve practice. Learning to use multiple models will also help you to understand the implicit frameworks of explanation drawn on by others that you come into contact with – such as your partner organisations, those you have contracting relationships with, members of your governing body or board, other team members – and so improve communication and mutual understanding.

This material is from our archive and is an adapted extract from Shaping public policy: contexts and processes (B856) which is no longer taught by The Open University. If you want to study formally with us, you may wish to explore other courses we offer in this subject area [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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