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Researchers and policy implementation

By 27/04/2022

The research is completed, report is submitted, and recommendations have been made. So what does implementation mean to a researcher? In my stint of working with researchers on the one hand and engaging and understanding government on the other, I am beginning to delve deeper into policy engagement and communication and its importance.

Context

In policymaking, implementation refers to turning theory into practice. Ideally it includes both formal and informal pathways, with defined roles played by stakeholders or actors such as pressure groups, bureaucrats, lawmakers, organisations, and individuals.

Implementation could involve prolonging a planning and decision-making process to choose the most effective policies. It should also be a collaborative process, where stakeholders help shape policies, even where outcomes could be uncertain.

In short, policy implementation often involves negotiation between stakeholders with common interests. In some cases, implementation becomes a process of complex ideas and counter ideas from different stakeholders/political groups.

There are three likely scenarios:

  1. Business as usual In this scenario, typically, a researcher evaluates and describes the current situation, and if existing policies are working there is no need to change anything.
  2. Implement all recommendations but modest intervention In this scenario the researcher evaluates the situation and prioritises the most necessary changes for short-term outcomes and result-oriented activities.
  3. Aggressive intervention model if major changes are needed. The researcher has to prioritise the urgent recommendations, which may have to happen in parallel. Targets need to be met without delay, so the researcher needs to create a realistic timeline and roadmap to prioritise activities to achieve short- and long-term goals.

Implementation should also focus on the people involved, perhaps by applying the 4 Ws:

  • Who will be affected if a policy is implemented?
  • What are the milestones planned, and are they clear and feasible?
  • Who is responsible for each of the activities/actions?
  • What are the best optimistic solutions?

Enablers of a sound policy implementation

To ensure a winning implementation strategy the following needs to be kept in mind:

Direction
All levels of implementation need a good leader who focuses on building and sustaining relationships, managing complexities, and managing multiple challenges. Appropriate leadership helps to plan the directives, resources, and structures of a programme. Continuity in leadership ensures the focus is on building and maintaining relationships, managing complex situations and, most importantly, addressing conflicts and adverse suggestions which could hamper implementation.

Researchers not only provide the key objectives, but also assign roles and responsibilities to different government departments.

Interaction and consultation
The communication strategy needs to be systematic to to succeed. Right from the introduction, through to action and feedback, a productive and meaningful dialogue must be maintained.

The researcher needs to ensure that there are opportunities for both sides to interact and deliberate throughout the process.

Feedback technique
A robust and viable feedback mechanism is required, accessible to all stakeholders. This will monitor implementation, and highlight the challenges and gaps, enabling a gap analysis. The feedback mechanism can include regular updates, a standardised reporting system, and periodic reviews at key stages of the policy cycle.

Policy lifecycle
Policy development and implementation are intimately linked, but not exactly the same at different stages. While poor policy design inevitably leads to poor implementation, well-designed policy can also be poorly implemented. To make the lifecycle effective it is important to include the five key elements of Plan, Develop, Review, Implement, and Final Review. If this is not defined well then there can be distortion between policy development and policy implementation.

Tips for effective implementation

  • Ensure that there is a scientific rigour and theory when planning and implementing a policy. For example, there should be a strong link between what the target group wants and what the policy is intending to do.
  • Focus on clear objectives that lays a roadmap for the implementation plan to ensure that target groups are receptive of the policies.
  • Ensure that there is active involvement from all stakeholders.
  • Choose leaders who have the required skills and believe in the objectives.

Conclusion

Policy implementation is very important as it affects how policies are accepted, not only by adhering to mandates but also adapting to changes. Finally, implementation is an evolving process, and needs to react to change.

The researcher’s role doesn’t end with the research and recommendations. Researchers need to work hand-in-hand with stakeholders to ensure that policy implementation is both successful and useful.

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