At last year’s MPSA conference, Pamela McCann of USC Sol Price School of Public Policy was kind enough to ask me to participate in a roundtable discussion with other prominent scholars. The focus of the panel was “Why Do We Have No Theory of Policy Implementation?”. I agreed to participate and upon informing my friends in public administration and public management, many smiled quaintly and pondered whether we needed such a theory. Realizing I was serious, they wished me Godspeed as I was apparently about to descend from my own perch in regulatory policy and bureaucratic politics into the abyss.
Nevertheless, we do need a theory of policy implementation. For reasons I will note below, policy implementation is key to understanding policy change and outcomes broadly, and not just in the crevices left by public administration or public management. Policy implementation is fundamental to understanding enduring issues in American politics, such as representation, party governance, and democratic governance.
Let’s get to that question of importance first. Of the many things that scholars of political behavior have suggested drive voting behavior, one of these is the policies of the party in power—especially the party of the president. The assumption, sometimes heroic, is that voters sense when the party in power has moved too far left or right for their tastes, and in response, turn out the party in power. How do we understand this linkage in the context of administrative incompetence, or even more importantly, opposition party obstruction? If opposition parties are able to impede, or outright degrade, the quality of policy implementation, then citizens no longer judge policies, but their implementation. This leads to a quite different interpretation of representation and mass movements in party support.
In the United States, it is apparent that opposition parties are able to manufacture this dynamic. The Affordable Care Act, for instance, has suffered from day one due to decisions about implementation forced on the administration by the opposition. Similarly, as late as fall 2015, 20% of the regulations implementing the Dodd-Frank regulatory reforms of the financial sector were still unimplemented, confronting stiff opposition from the House Banking and Finance Committee. This phenomena works both ways. At the present, Democrats are holding out obstruction as one possible response to the recent election of Donald Trump.
For political scientists, this also opens up an avenue for studying party governance in a new way. Opposition influence does not end with the bargain struck in the legislative branch. Our recent past has shown, if nothing else, that debilitating the governing party’s attempts at implementation is a viable strategy for influence, and governing from the back. As for democratic governance, it emerges as a viable strategy for representation, even when out of power. In other words, credit-claiming and position-taking has both an affirmative, and preventative dimension relating to government action.
If I have convinced you that policy implementation might be important, why do we need a theory of policy implementation? After all, we have the prosperous fields of administration and management that bear heavily on many of the things bureaucracies do. It is difficult for research traditions built around the inner-workings of bureaucracies and administrative units to deal effectively with a problem that is inherently inter-institutional. The same could be said of bureaucratic politics with its focus on influence, the accumulation of power through reputation, and how bureaucracies navigate their political environment. Are these things important for understanding policy implementation? Of course they are, but they will never be theories of policy implementation.
Three characteristics of governance in American politics severely limit that ability of current research to speak to policy implementation. The first of these is the nature of the issues faced by government in the modern era. Issues like climate change, terrorism, and global economic interdependence are boundary-spanning (May & Jochim 2013) in nature—they cross many traditional substantive issues. As such, diverse interests and bureaucracies work within the same substantive area.
The second is bureaucratic competition in regulatory and implementation politics. My own work demonstrates that it is rare for one, and only one, bureaucracy to work within an issue area (Workman 2015). Bureaucracies compete to define policy problems, provide information, and steer the resulting policy debate with tremendous implications for policy implementation.
Third, federalism overlays the nature of these problems and the bureaucracies competing within them, adding an extra layer of consequences for policy implementation (McCann 2016). In many ways, the federalism components of the ACA’s implementation shaped resultant policy outcomes in the program for better and worse. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that legislators and parties were thinking about policy implementation when considering these choices.
If we understand policy implementation as important, and accept that a theory of policy implementation must move beyond our current approaches in management or bureaucratic politics, why now? The straightforward answer is that the problems and political dynamics we now face demand it if we are to understand policy change, outcomes, and how citizens intersect with governing structures. Beyond that, it is worth considering the history of policy implementation.
Policy implementation was born, grew, and expired long before the necessary conceptual and theoretical components necessary for understanding it where intellectually ripe. In other words, it was an important problem before its time. As Soren Winter, Christopher Barry and George Krause pointed out on the roundtable (Soundcloud audio above), many of our theories of politics today bear directly on policy implementation, including theories of delegation, the ecology of games, how governing systems process information, and how they accumulate expertise. None of this intellectual infrastructure existed when the concern for policy implementation burst onto the scene.
If not now, when? If not us, who? I hope that by connecting the study of policy implementation to larger concerns of democratic governance and representation, those in American politics, especially those studying legislators, parties, bureaucracies, and U.S. federalism, might forge a new line of research in policy implementation. The characteristics of modern governing structures, matched to modern policy problems demands it.
About the Author: Samuel Workman is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma, and author of The Dynamics of Bureaucracy in the U.S. Government. Workman served on the “Why Do We Have No Theory of Policy Implementation?” roundtable at the 2016 MPSA annual conference with Pamela Clouser McCann, University of Southern California, Chair; George A. Krause, University of Pittsburgh; Soeren C. Winter, The Danish National Centre for Social Research; and Christopher Robert Berry, University of Chicago.