Policies Don’t Solve Problems. Implementation Does.
Guest post by Luke Fowler
Dozens of court cases and federal laws over the last century and half were supposed to bring about the end of racism in America. But, in 2023, racial justice still looms large in American politics.
Another spate of mass shootings in the US has led to another round of discussion of reforming gun laws. But, still the US leads the world in violent gun deaths.
Why do problems that have been legislated to death still plague our communities?
In contrast, there are examples of policies that have moved the needle in a positive way. For instance, air quality in the US has significantly improved since the adoption of the Clean Air Act, and produced around $2 trillion dollars in benefits.
Recent evidence also shows that counties adopting a mask mandate during 2020 saw between 25 and 35 percent fewer COVID-19 cases.
In both cases, the results are healthier communities with strong economies.
So, what is the difference between policies that work and policies that don’t work? My book, Democratic Policy Implementation in an Ambiguous World, examines this question and the answer is pretty simple. Policies don’t solve problems. Policies only lay out ideas about how problems should be solved. But, those ideas have to be effectively implemented. Implementing ideas almost always requires us to break away from “the way things are done,” which is a difficult proposition. By doing so, though, we change how problems manifest and how communities operate. And, that’s what actually solves problems.
In order to get people to act differently, we have to get them to think differently. My book argues two important points here: 1) policy implementation is about how behavioral norms are constructed and deconstructed through policy, and, 2) how public servants come to understand ambiguous policies is the most important driver of how they implement policies. In other words, thinking about policy implementation from this lens tells us a lot about why people behave the way they do and how to change those behaviors so that problems are solved.
For public servants, actions at the street-level, where policies are applied to real world circumstances, are driven by coping mechanisms (decision rules made up to simplify choices) on one hand and status quos (establish ways of doing things) on the other. Taken together, these represent easy, validated courses of action for public servants that are likely to be met with little conflict. Of course, this can also quickly lead to ineffective, unresponsive policy and red tape.
The trouble is that policies are often too ambiguous to give actual practical guidance to public servants making choices at the street-level. Instead, cops, teachers, or social workers have to decide what makes sense in the moment. What actions align not just with the letter of the law, but with the spirit of the law. Sometimes, they get it right; sometimes, they get it wrong.
In a broader view, this is not a symptom of lazy, ineffectual, self-interested bureaucrats that are bad at their jobs. This is a symptom of a system that places too much decision-making responsibility in their hands and then viciously critiques them for not being able to serve all the interests at once.
But, there are strategies that increase the likelihood of successful implementation. First, and foremost, interpreting policies and understanding their meaning is a crucial step. This process should be both collaborative and evolve over time as the needs and wants of communities change. Second, managers must teach people how to think, and not just what to do. By doing so, they are setting a foundation for how implementers apply policies in unpredictable situations, so the intuition of street-level bureaucrats is coordinated and validated. Third, processes should simplify and guide decision-making, and they should enable public servants to find functional solutions that thread the needle of competing interests at the street-level. Finally, communication and collaboration should be both vertical and horizontal, so public servants learn what works from their colleagues and how to align their choices across organizations, creating consistent experiences for the public.
Based on my work, if these strategies are followed, policies are implemented consistently and behaviors shift accordingly, leading to the types of change that policies are meant to create. In sum, policies only solve problems if they are implemented well, so implementation needs to become a bigger part of the conversation as we struggle to see good ideas become good acts.
Luke Fowler is Associate Professor of Public Administration and Faculty Director of the School of Public Service at Boise State University. He is the author of Environmental Federalism: Old Legacies and New Challenges.