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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

The public policy – action relationship

4 The public policy-action relationship: activities

Having read this course you now have the opportunity to reflect on the public policy-action relationship in more detail. There are two activities and two self assessment questions (SAQs) for you to complete.

Activity 1 A focus for reading

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Summarise each of the different models of the policy-action relationship described in this unit. Think of a piece of policy implementation you have been involved with, and then analyse it using each of these models.



The discussion in the unit emphasises that situations are rarely straightforward or susceptible to ‘either/or’ solutions. Each different model will often contain elements that are applicable to a situation, and each may highlight or obscure particular features and illustrate why some things work and others do not. In terms of your example of policy implementation, for instance, the rational planning model might have highlighted a poorly defined contract, or the cultural model could have shown up a lack of leadership in policy delivery.

Click on the link below to read 'Implementation studies: time for a revival?' by Susan M. Barrett (PDF, 10 pages, 0.3 MB) then answer the following questions.

Implementation studies: time for a revival? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


Barrett highlights initiatives in policy effectiveness since the 1960s and demonstrates how academic studies on implementation have developed in tandem with different government approaches.

What is the purpose of implementation studies, and what factors have influenced this since the 1960s?

What does Barrett see as the main challenges still facing implementation studies? From your own experience, do you agree?


The purpose of implementation studies is to understand and explain how relationships and interactions between different actors involved in the policy process influence policy delivery. There is also a question as to whether implementation is about achieving ‘conformance or performance’. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of policy innovation, influenced by a government concern with effectiveness and a desire to improve decision-making processes and the coordination of services. Other key influences included a greater focus on strategy and systems thinking. Although evaluative studies sought to understand why implementation failure occurred, at this time implementation was often studied through a top-down hierarchical approach, which reflected the values of many politicians (and researchers) that policy should be made at the top and implemented further down the hierarchy. During the 1980s the concept of the policy–action model began to attract attention, as did the bargaining and negotiation processes that take place between the different stages of policy formulation and implementation. The scope for action for actors at ‘street level’ was also explored, and at the same time there was an attempt to take account of the different pressures on implementation agencies. In the 1990s the ideas of new public management (NPM), strategic management and business language supplanted traditional discourses of public administration and policy making. The focus shifted from implementation to change management and performance measurement. A top-down model of implementation was reasserted in the separation of politics and administration. Within this model, it was considered that there was less need for implementation studies as it was believed that PSR had addressed implementation failure. Barrett speculates that it might now be ‘time for a revival’ for implementation studies. She suggests that there are still challenges to be addressed: the need to meet government targets, a lack of understanding about the factors necessary to achieve effective change, and the complexity of inter-organisational relations within the policy–action relationship. She sees scope for further research into implementation and change processes, and for greater understanding of how to achieve a balance between control and autonomy within performance measurement cultures. Lastly, she highlights the need for implementation debates to pay greater attention to ethics and values. Many organisations probably have to grapple with these issues – meeting top-down government targets and directives, working in partnership, coping with limited resources and so on. There is also a need in many areas of public services to incorporate greater public involvement into the different stages of the policy process.


Barrett discusses the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches to implementation. How convinced are you that such a rigid divide did exist in reality?


Top-down approaches to implementation studies reflected traditional structures of government, with policy made at the top and fed down the hierarchy, so that implementation happened at street level. The separate nature of these aspects of the policy process was emphasised. In this ‘rational’ approach, failure was often seen as a result of poor communication between the different stages. Bottom-up approaches highlighted how policy could actually be influenced by those delivering policy and emphasised a more fluid, interactive approach, focusing on issues such as consensus building, influence, conflict resolution and power. Was there such a rigid divide in reality? With hindsight, it is easy to see that the two approaches were ‘ideal’ types. There are links here to the discussion in the unit overview, where it is argued that the models are not this straightforward. As Barrett points out, even researchers who espoused the bottom-up approach focused on different factors and influences. At the same time, those who did some of the early research from a top-down approach, such as Pressman and Wildavsky in the 1980s (see Barrett), were relatively pessimistic about the extent to which a rational policy process could be achieved through better management alone. Other researchers tried to reach a synthesis between the two approaches.

Activity 2 Structured reflection

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Pick one relevant area of your work and describe your department's or team's role in policy making and implementation.

Next, describe the organisations or groups involved in policy formulation, decision making and implementation in this area, and indicate where boundaries between the different stages are blurred. Diagrams might be useful here.

Now that you have read about implementation studies, what problems or challenges are you able to identify concerning the policy area you described above?

You may wish to use the Comments section below to share your ideas.



This activity will be useful in helping you understand about policy implementation in organisations and fields different from your own. The historical perspective on implementation studies presented by Barrett might also have stimulated some thoughts on how your policy area has changed over the years and whether you can identify different elements of top-down and bottom-up models at work here. As the reading by Barrett highlighted, the types of challenge that organisations face include the need to meet centrally defined targets and measures and the need to work in partnership with other organisations. It will be interesting to share with other students your views on which of these aspects have the greatest importance at the present time.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371