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Nina Holm Vohnsen

Implementation and the delicate question of context

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This paper argues against classic views that portray implementation-gone-wrong as resulting
from bad planning, resistance amongst front-staff ultimately charged with implementation,
miscommunication, or stake-holder resistance. Rather it places the source of distortion inside
the organization where the policy is crafted and in the organization where it is carried out. If implementers do not follow orders, it argues, it is not necessarily because they do not want to, but
because orders are multiple, mutually exclusive, and fail to take account of external and internal
organizational contexts already marked by various other projects, efforts, and goals that compete
for implementers’ attention.
The paper therefore argues that the main reason policies fail are the policy-makers’ tendency
to project their sites of intervention as blank slates or ‘ground zeros’ on which they can ‘build’
from scratch. What result from this are policies which are concise, clear, and clever but which are
doomed to materialize in unexpected ways because they disregard the fact that implementation
never happens in a social or organizational vacuum. The failure to appreciate this often lead to
the default impulse to place fault with either implementers’ compliance (policemen, caseworkers,
teachers, doctors) or the legislation or policy itself. Instead, I argue, policy-makers need to appreciate that a piece of legislation or policy might in itself be a suitable tool and be well-designed
and that implementers might wish nothing more than to implement it but that implementers are
usually placed in complex bureaucratic set-ups which are already bursting with goals (such as
other legislation, local directives, other projects, result-contracts, etc.) all of which rely on their
compliance to be fulfilled. And sometimes these goals are at conflict or even mutually exclusive.
In such cases, the challenge to the policy-maker is not to design new policy or to direct ones resources towards ‘better communication’. Nor is it to invent new incentives to follow orders. Rather, it is to assume the responsibility for identifying the multiple goals, purposes, and efforts that
compete for implementers’ attention and to prioritize between them. This is a politically delicate
task but if policy-makers or politicians do not assume this responsibility someone further down
the implementation-chain will have to. As a means to identify these different goals and efforts,
the paper suggest policy-makers begin by paying grateful attention to employees’ complains and
criticisms as these are typically indicative of goal-conflict. Rather than regarding such behavior
as obstructive, it should be viewed as constructive within a competing frame of goals and values.
Original languageEnglish
Place of publicationhttp://mind-lab.dk/assets/772/Reflections_no1_summary13062012.pdf
PublisherMindLab
Volume1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2012
SeriesReflections
Number1

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