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It’s time to think smarter about policy implementation

12 May 2019

News and media


Person working over post-it notes

Effective policy implementation is often overlooked or treated as secondary to policy development but the results of poor policy implementation can be significant, wasting money and damaging public trust in government. 

Dr Nick Fleming, the founding director of Innergise – a firm focused on fuelling progress, performance and prosperity by helping people to conceive, design and execute smarter strategies, programs and projects, has worked as a consultant to the public and private sector and believes that a better focus on implementation – at all stages of the policy cycle – will lead to better outcomes.

“Regulation is only effective if its well-crafted and then enforced – it’s the same with creating public value through policy – the strategy and its execution have to be considered together,” Dr Fleming said.

“We have low levels of trust in government and that is partly because we just can’t get things done.”

Dr Fleming said that there were many reasons why policies did not get executed well, or at all, including a lack of commitment from public sector leaders, and a lack of engagement with key stakeholders.

“Ineffective leadership inhibits the buy-in that implementation needs,” he said.

“Senior leaders need to be committed to execution of policy. If stuff is not happening, there’s a reason for it. Leaders need to take responsibility for that. Some of the senior leaders I’ve worked with do not have implementation in their skill set or mindset.

“There are also departments where their size and rotations of personnel cause a disconnect between the design and implementation of the same policy.”

Dr Fleming is teaching two ANZSOG courses on Effective Policy Implementation, one for individuals and one for teams, where he aims to pass on tools and techniques that will help participants become more effective at managing implementation.

This includes strategies to implement change, avoid mis-steps and manage risks, adapt and improve implementation and sustain resources, focus and support.

Evaluation vital for good implementation

He said the public sector faced greater difficulty due to the involvement of multiple stakeholders in complex public policy problems.

“This is not always taken into account when public sector agencies are implementing policy.

“There are examples of agencies just assuming that stakeholders will get on board. There are times when the assumption that stakeholders even know the policy exists has been wrong.”

Dr Fleming said that policy makers needed to focus more on stakeholders if they wanted policy implementation to work.

“When you are talking about implementation, you are invariably talking about creating change, and asking people to do things differently. That’s not what most people want.

“Our job is to enable stakeholders to do something differently to how they are doing it now.

He said part ofhis work with government had been “shifting people’s thinking toa more realistic place”in policy design and implementation, sharpening the focus on the change the public sector was trying to create, and how was it enabling people to work.

“In modern public policy, who we rely on for delivery is becoming more complex and more contested. We need to recognise that we don’t have all the answers, authority or resources,” he said.

Private sector focus on outcomes

Dr Fleming said that the private sector had a stronger focus on implementation and delivering change than the public sector because it was more focused on outcomes.

“I think one thing that the private sector wants is an outcome, and it is more persuasive and diligent at getting to that outcome,” he said.

“The public sector is better at process.”

He said that while the public sector was being charged with complex problems it should be wary of overplaying the difficulties it faced and focus on broader consultation.

“It is inherent to political process that people ‘decide and defend’ – but when you go out and talk to people, and focus on an implementation outcome that would make this decision acceptable to them, you can quite quickly and profoundly change the dynamic,” he said.

Dr Fleming said thatboth implementation and evaluation needed to be considered as early as possible in the policy design process, andthat evaluation was a vital part of good implementation.

He said the “policy cycle” – the staged process of developing policy from identifying issues, through policy design and implementationto evaluation – should be considered more of a cascade with each stage incorporating elements of the other stages.

“Evaluation must be included from the beginning. Just pick up any Auditor-General’s report and the lack ofattention to evaluation stands out,” he said.

“So why don’t we evaluate? It’s seen as too expensive and taking way money that could go into frontline services.Or it is seen as a ‘post hoc’ check – i.e‘did we get what we wanted?’

“Evaluation needs to be built into program design and the questions of‘how do you assess success?’ have to be asked at the beginning. We need to think through what the evaluation data is telling uswhile a program is being implemented and this kind of monitoring does not need to be expensive.

“We also need to look at problem solving because if we have got the wrong problem, our solutions will be at best sub-optimal, at worst completely useless.

“Time taken upfront to discuss the problem has massive flow-on consequences, and the dividend if we get those decisions right is enormous.”

Opening space for innovative policy

Dr Fleming said that while Australia had generally delivered economic policy well, progress in broader social and environmental policies had been more difficult.

“These are areas where evidence can be slower to emerge, and evaluation is harder. 

“Issues are becoming much more complex and clearly, in some instances, they exceed the capacity of our politicians and senior bureaucrats.

“When their complexity is overwhelming, the tendency is to simplify them. But that’s unrealistic, definitely not effective and fuels partisan confrontation.

“People don’t trust this approach because it just doesn’t feel reasonable or sensible. Leaders need to say this is a different type of circumstance and needs a different response.”

He said that one of the challenges facing the public sector was how to encourage broad-ranging and creative solutions, in a sector that is often risk averse.

“Better risk management can help. We know there are risks, so how can we make our initial steps small and focus on key risks first? If you can reduce your risk and consequence profile this can open up spaces for innovation.”

Dr Fleming is teaching two ANZSOG workshops on Effective Policy Implementation in Canberra in June, the first on 11 June is a one-day intensive workshop with focus on risk management, relationship building and using practical tools underpinned from evidence-based insights.