The public policy – action relationship
The public policy – action relationship

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The public policy – action relationship

2 The models in action: what counts is what works?

As noted at the start of Session 1, the models of change can be both explanatory and normative. As explanations, each corresponds to a different theoretical tradition. So do you just pick the one that seems most compelling? Or do different theories help explain different kinds of phenomena? The answer suggested here closely follows the work on metaphors by Gareth Morgan (1986), who sets out a number of different models of organisations (some of which map on to those outlined here). Morgan argues that managers need to be able to use multiple models in order to highlight different features of the reality they want to describe or explain. You could think of the models as different lenses in a pair of methodological spectacles: put on the ‘rational planning’ model and some things will be highlighted and others obscured; but if you then switch to an ‘organic’ or ‘cultural’ model other things will come to your attention. Each one offers different possible explanations of why things work or, quite often, don't work. Another way of saying this is that each offers different kinds of explanation for implementation failure, and that using multiple models in this way encourages a shift from ‘either/or’ thinking.

The mechanical model. For those who turn to the mechanical model the assumption regarding policy failure is likely to be that the plans were defective, the targets flawed or the contract badly specified. The danger here is that implementation failure is liable to lead those working with an implicit mechanical model to draw more power back to the centre – in other words, to strengthen the levers of control – rather than to view the model itself as potentially flawed.

The organic model. Looking at policy failure from this perspective leads to a focus on failures of communication, on barriers to relationships working effectively, or on other factors that prevent the system from responding or adapting to new policy needs or imperatives. So, for example, policy failure might be attributed to government having failed to listen to those with knowledge of how things might work best on the ground, or having failed to draw on the lessons provided by earlier policy experiments. Here policy failure might lead to calls for a shift from top-down to more bottom-up approaches, or for more enabling policies that allow for innovation and experimentation.

The cultural model. This draws attention to problems of vision and leadership, either on the part of government or on the part of senior managers charged with the task of implementation. That is, there may not be a clear enough policy steer from government or managers, the policy itself may be so amorphous that it gives confusing signals about its purpose and goals, or senior managers may not be providing sufficient leadership in ‘selling’ the value of change to their staff. This, in turn, means that policy is likely to be implemented in a relatively shallow or tokenistic manner, with little depth of commitment on the part of those involved. Those drawing on this model might call for a more coherent policy process (in contrast to policy overload, in which different policies might be in conflict with each other) and a clear policy direction that focuses on the long-term outcomes to be delivered, rather than a rapid succession of new policy initiatives that are tightly monitored in terms of short-term outputs.

The political model. Finally, policy failure might be explained in terms of outright resistance, whether passive or active, on the part of public service professions or organisations seeking to defend their interests. This is a very common explanation for politicians, and senior managers, to draw on, and it invokes attempts to weaken the power base of those viewed as resisting change. This kind of explanation has underpinned a succession of government reforms, such as the introduction of competition, the restructuring of services that are deemed to be clinging to old ways of working, and the shift to enhancing the power of consumers in order to break open entrenched professional and/or organisational power. However, the political model might also be used to offer other explanations of why policy has failed to be implemented. First, it may be that there was not a strong enough coalition of interests in the policy formulation process. Government departments may not have been in agreement; civil servants may have been less committed to this policy than to others; key professional or commercial stakeholders may not have been sufficiently consulted, or their concerns may not have been addressed in the policy development stage. Remember, too, that it is not enough for a policy and its programme of action to be broadly supported across government. Often it will also be necessary for agreement to be reached on what the government will stop doing. In other words, success or failure may depend as much on the opportunities for gradual budgetary reallocations at appropriate levels as on resistance to the policy as such. Second, resistance may not be simply a matter of recalcitrant groups defending their interests. Those involved may, rather, be defending values that they hold dear, or trying to protect the communities or users they serve from what they view as damaging consequences of the policy concerned.

As you read this section you probably saw the value of each of the models in turn. And it is important that, as managers, you try to use each of them, rather than just sticking to one that seems most compelling or that fits best with your existing (probably implicit) framework of analysis. In the case of failures in partnership working, for example, the organic model takes us only so far in attributing problems to failures of communication or relationships within the partnership. As Newman (2006) argues, partnerships may also be undermined by, on the one hand, tensions between the commitment of partners to joint working in order to deliver long-term outcomes, and, on the other, by the imperative for each of the partners to meet organisation-specific targets. In other words, prescriptions based on the mechanical model may counter those derived from the organic. Partnerships may also fail because they are not sufficiently driven by shared values, perhaps because of a lack of leadership (the cultural model), or because of a failure to pay sufficient attention to power imbalances (the political model).

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