Moving policy implementation theory forward: A multiple streams/critical juncture approach

AuthorMichael Howlett
Published date01 October 2019
Date01 October 2019
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(4) 405–430
Moving policy
! The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
implementation theory
DOI: 10.1177/0952076718775791
forward: A multiple
streams/critical juncture
Michael Howlett
Department of Political Science, Simon Fraser University, Canada;
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of
Singapore, Singapore
Meta-reviews of the implementation literature have constantly bemoaned a lack of
theory in this area. This is partially a function of the policy sciences having inherited
a tradition of descriptive work in public administration, a historical phenomenon exa-
cerbated by the more recent addition to this corpus of an equally atheoretical set of
works in public management. As a result, the study of policy implementation within the
policy sciences remains fractured and largely anecdotal, with a set of proto-theories
competing for attention – from network management to principal–agent theory, game
theory and others – while very loose frameworks like the ‘bottom-up vs. top-down’
debate continue to attract attention, but with little progress to show for more than 30
years of work on this subject. This article argues the way out of this conundrum is to
revisit the subject and object of policy implementation through the lens of policy pro-
cess theory, rather than appropriating somewhat ill-fitting concepts from other disci-
plines to this area of fields of study. In particular, it looks at the recent synthesis of
several competing frameworks in the policy sciences – advocacy coalition, multiple
streams and policy cycle models – developed by Howlett, McConnell and Perl and
argues this approach, hitherto applied only to the ‘front end’ activities of agenda setting
and policy formulation, helps better situate implementation activities in public policy
studies, drawing attention to the different streams of actors and events active at this
phase of public policy-making and helping to pull implementation studies back into the
policy science mainstream.
Corresponding author:
Michael Howlett, Department of Political Science, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC V5A 1S65, Canada.

Public Policy and Administration 34(4)
Advocacy coalition framework, multiple streams, policy cycle, policy implementation,
stages approach
Introduction: The poor state of policy implementation studies
within policy process theory
In order for policies to be put into place, among other important tasks funding
must be allocated, personnel assigned, and rules of procedure developed in order to
make a sometimes very abstract policy ‘work’ on the ground. Implementation
research within the policy sciences over the past 30 years has generated insights
into many specif‌ic activities and practices prevalent in dif‌ferent jurisdictions at this
stage of the policy cycle. However, periodic meta-reviews of the subject continually
f‌ind this area of policy studies to be largely descriptive and poorly integrated into
mainstream policy theorizing (Durlak and DuPre, 2008; Hupe and Sætren, 2015;
O’Toole, 2004).
As this article argues, this is due in large measure to the fact that existing studies
of policy implementation have inherited a tradition and body of largely descriptive
work in public administration and law, a corpus of studies whose atheoretical nature
has been exacerbated by the more recent addition to it of an equally descriptive set of
works in public management. As a result, the current state of studies of policy
implementation remains fractured, with a set of proto-theories competing for atten-
tion – from network management to principal–agent theory, game theory and others
– with no single approach helping to integrate the study of implementation activities
with that of other stages of the policy process, from agenda-setting to policy evalu-
ation, which have received detailed treatment and contributed to the advance of
models and frameworks of policy processes and outputs (Howlett et al., 2009).
The way out of this conundrum, it is argued below, is to revisit the subject and
object of policy implementation through the lens of policy process theory, rather
than continuing to appropriate somewhat ill-f‌itting concepts from other f‌ields of
study such as public administration, public management, law and organization,
and regulatory studies, among others. Doing so, however, requires some
adjustments to be made to existing policy process theories in order to contribute
to the fruitful dialectic of policy and administrative studies needed to move policy
implementation studies forward.
In particular, as this article argues, it requires a synthesis of several currently
competing frameworks in the policy sciences – advocacy coalition, multiple streams
and policy cycle models – which can help to better situate implementation activities
within the policy sciences, drawing attention to the dif‌ferent streams of actors and
events active at this phase of public policy-making and helping to pull implemen-
tation studies back into the policy studies mainstream. The elements of this syn-
thesis, the reasons why it is needed, and the resulting model of policy process tasks,
including implementation, which emerges from it, are set out below.

The problems with policy implementation theory:
Something borrowed and something blue
After a public problem has reached the policy agenda, various options proposed to
address it, and a government has decided on a course of action to follow, the
decision must be put into practice. The ef‌fort, knowledge and resources devoted
to translating policy decisions into action comprise a set of activities commonly
described as the ‘implementation stage’ of policy-making.
Until the early 1970s, implementation was often regarded as largely unproblem-
atic or quasi-automatic within the policy sciences, with the execution of a policy
expected to occur through the invocation of standard operating procedures and
practices in well-staf‌fed and expert civil services and other public organizations.
Much early policy research was embued with this idea and ignored or downplayed
the pitfalls arising at this stage of policy-making, for example, assuming that once a
policy decision was made, the administrative arm of government would simply
marshal from within its own ranks the resources and knowledge needed to carry
it out (Hargrove, 1975; Hupe and Hill, 2016).
For most public policy researchers at that time, the most signif‌icant and research-
worthy activities in policy-making studies were felt to occur at the ‘front-end’ of the
policy-making process: namely agenda-setting and policy formulation and decision-
making itself (Jones, 1984). This was where policy problems and solutions
were articulated, def‌ined, framed and contested, with implementation and other
‘back-end’ activities such as policy evaluation simply expected to be carried out by
neutral, technical, of‌f‌icials in a reasonably ef‌fective and ef‌f‌icient manner. In an
interesting case of selective borrowing, this was done despite the availability of
a large, century-old, literature in public administration, organizational behaviour
and management concerned with the dif‌f‌iculties involved in the ef‌fective execution
of government decisions (Gaus, 1931; Goodnow, 1900; Wilson, 1887).
Some later studies of implementation continued to be inf‌luenced by the idea that
implementation was largely technical in nature. However, study after study, includ-
ing notably following the publication of Pressman and Wildavsky’s (1973) work on
program implementation dif‌f‌iculties in 1960s era US urban and social welfare
policy, showed that many problems were inherently involved in the ef‌fective exe-
cution of policy aims and that ef‌fective implementation should not be taken for
granted or viewed simply through a ‘barriers’ or (in)capacity lens. Pressman and
Wildavsky’s study of federal programs for unemployed inner-city residents of
Oakland, CA showed that job-creation programs were not actually being carried
out in the manner anticipated by policy-makers and led to a renewed emphasis on
the need for better empirical studies, and better informed and carefully developed
theories of policy implementation, if better policies and outcomes were to be con-
sistently achieved (Bardach, 1977; van Meter and van Horn, 1975). Research in
other countries arrived at similar conclusions (Hjern, 1982; Mayntz, 1979) about
the need to address political, epistemological, behavioural and contextual factors
af‌fecting target compliance and agency actions, among others, in order for

Public Policy and Administration 34(4)
successful implementation to occur (Spicker, 2005, 2006), and about the dif‌f‌iculties
governments and policy-makers encountered in attempting to carry out these tasks.
Within the newly emerging policy sciences, the upshot of these studies in 1970s was
the start of a more systematic ef‌fort in the 1980s to better understand the factors that
inf‌luenced public policy implementation (Sabatier and Mazmanian, 1981; Mazmanian
and Sabatier, 1983). However, this ‘second generation’ of implementation research in
the policy sciences quickly became embroiled in a dispute over the most appropriate
focus for describing and analysing its subject matter – the so-called debate between
‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom-up’ approaches to the study of implementation (Barrett,
2004; Sabatier, 1986) which ef‌fectively blocked theoretical...

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