Bridging the policy-implementation gap with the Wales Centre for Public Policy

Cyclists in London

Policy implementation is challenging. Across most areas of government and across the world, there are numerous examples of how implementation barriers have caused policies to fall short of intended outcomes. Translating policy intentions into changes on the ground is a complex task which depends on the support and work of a wide range of actors.

To understand the latest thinking on the policy-implementation gap, the Wales Centre for Public Policy commissioned CEI to undertake an evidence synthesis. This review aims to shed light on how policy work can be more mindful of what is required for effective implementation.

“The report focusses on ‘Big P’ or government-directed policy and brings together recommendations from literature and the field of implementation science,” says CEI Advisor, Anne-Marie Baan.

"We drew on both academic and ‘grey’ literature – such as existing guides for integrating an implementation focus into policymaking and delivery – and our synthesis was guided by an Advisory Group of experts from academia, the Welsh Government and the What Works Network.”

“Evidence was collated on challenges experienced, as well as recommended strategies to support and enhance policy implementation. Wherever possible, we’ve tried to signpost existing tools and resources already available to policy makers.”

Key findings

The central recommendation to bridging the policy-implementation gap is the need for implementation to be an integral consideration from the outset and throughout all phases of policy work.

“Policymakers need to engage in ‘implementation thinking’ right from the very start of the process,” says Jane Lewis, CEI Director in the UK. “Implementation needs to be understood much more fully than as the 'execution' of policy.”

“It is crucial is that those making the policies grapple with what is required for effective implementation, that they establish and support the conditions and infrastructure for effective implementation, and that they do not prematurely exit the reform effort.”

Alignment with the context of implementation is key. “Policies are more difficult to implement when they contradict other existing policies, they do not respond to the needs and priorities of those involved, or they are not supported by the available infrastructure or financial and human resources,” says Anne-Marie.

Investing in problem analysis, stakeholder engagement, identifying and planning for the required implementation resources and capabilities, and establishing strong mechanisms for monitoring and course correction can help strengthen alignment.

“Clarity around the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of a policy is vital,” Anne-Marie notes. Clear communication and framing can help policy makers convey a rationale, while the provision of implementation direction and guidance, as well as establishing robust governance and leadership structures can all help address ambiguity in how policies are to be delivered.

It is possible to make up ground or compensate later for actions missed. “These implementation support approaches are mutually reinforcing and compensatory and can be used at different points in the policy cycle,” says Anne-Marie. “The key recommendation is to do the implementation-thinking; work done (or not done) upfront will influence what is needed later."

Although principally aimed at policy makers and implementers in Wales, the report draws on international evidence, and has implications for policy professionals globally.

The report, Implementation-minded Policy Making, was developed by CEI’s Jane Lewis, Anne-Marie Baan, Emma Wills and Dr Ellie Ott, in collaboration with Amy Lloyd, Dan Bristow and colleagues at the Wales Centre for Public Policy.

The full report, as well as a policy brief and further information, can be accessed HERE.