Skip to content

Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance (Hill & Hupe)

Most of the people who know my work in public policy theory and scholarship tend to call me what my good friend, Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) calls me, “The Policy Instruments Guy”. When I was about to start my PhD, I read the work of Dr. Kathryn Harrison (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Michael Howlett (Simon Fraser University). I loved their research, particularly because I was keen to understand why some governments would choose non-regulatory instruments (specifically, voluntary agreements and information disclosure policy instruments). Kathy had studied a few voluntary programs (eco-labeling, Canada’s Accelerated Reduction/Elimination of Toxics program with Dr. Werner Antweiler and the 33/50 program in what is one of Kathy’s most popular journal articles, “Talking with the Donkey“). Mike has done a hell of a lot of work on the design of policy instruments, on policy instrument choice and on the concept of policy portfolios. So, being mentored by Kathy and Mike, it should probably be unsurprising that I am a policy instruments kind of guy.


I am also very interested in, and have done work on the implementation of specific policy strategies, such as the river basin councils for water governance in Mexico, and before, the Mexican pollutant release and transfer registry project, the “Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes”, RETC (you can read many of my publications here). I led a team helping INECC build the National Office for Climate Policy Evaluation in Mexico and am now following its implementation. So, I am always keen to go back to these works.

That’s why this past year, I decided I would go back to the public policy implementation literature. An additional incentive was the fact that I taught the Public Policy Analysis course both in the Spring of 2016 and the Fall of 2016 and therefore, I wanted to teach my students how to analyze the implementation of specific public policies. One of the texts that is touted as a classic now, beyond the traditional and well-read Sabatier and Mazmanian framework for the conditions of good policy implementation or the DeLeon and DeLeon canonical text on the resurgence of policy implementation studies. To be quite frank, I was kind of disappointed about how implementation seemed to be getting a lot of action. To me, policy instrument choice doesn’t really get as much publicity as it should. Why do governments choose to implement some programs over others? This seemed like a much more interesting question to ask. But reading Susan Barrett’s piece on 30 years of public policy implementation literature, and lately the work of Gemma Carey, I’ve come to realize that perhaps implementation theory hasn’t really gotten a lot of traction.

Implementing public policyWhich is why I picked up Hill and Hupe’s “Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance” published by SAGE in 2014. I had read the work of Michael Hill and Peter Hupe a while ago, specifically this particular book but in the previous versions, but this one seemed really interesting because it purported to combine implementation theory with the study of governance. For those of us who study governance and public policy theories, any publication with the word in the title becomes immediately interesting. I was particularly keen to see if Hill and Hupe would analyze the complex interactions that derive from applying governance theories to the implementation of public policy. I was also looking forward to seeing how Hill and Hupe distinguished operational governance from other models or modes of governance (strategic? tactical?)

Since governance (a la RAW Rhodes) implies in one way or another a multi-level approach to interactions across actors and a broad range of variations of institutional and organizational architectures, implementation of any sort of public policy in a context of a non-top-down type of political and policy regime becomes a challenge. How can you easily implement a bottom-up approach where street-level bureaucrats are able, through their day-to-day routines, put in place, run and maintain a specific public service delivery program, when the top-level politicians do not offer buy in?

I am definitely not disappointed in Hill and Hupe’s new version of their acclaimed book. I really enjoyed reading it (I read it early last year in preparation for my Public Policy Analysis class, then I re-read it over my holidays last December). I do have to say, though, that although the breadth of coverage of policy implementation research and theory is vast, I didn’t find many women or under-represented minorities represented in the literature that they covered. For me, the work of Renate Mayntz was fundamental in helping me understand bureaucracies and how policies were implemented. Not that Hill and Hupe overlooked her (they do cite her work), but Mayntz is definitely one of the main authors in the policy implementation theory, alongside Linda DeLeon (who also published with Peter DeLeon), and Susan Barrett. In my view, Mayntz is as much of an authority and key author as Sabatier and Mazmanian, or Hill and Hupe themselves. This over-representation of male, Western scholars is not a bit surprising to me, but it is kind of annoying because I make a concerted effort to include women and under-represented minorities in my syllabi and my citations.

The vast majority of the book is a macro literature review on implementation studies, which is nice and sort of re-summarizes their own previous research, plus Sabatier, Mazmanian, Mayntz, Barrett, Pressman, Wildavsky, etc. Chapter 1 is a nice explanation of why they examine governance and what it means for implementation studies. Chapter 2 and 3 summarize the state of the art in implementation studies and the top-down/bottom-up approach. It’s in Chapter 4 where Hill and Hupe examine policy implementation theories across the board and bring up the notion of policy networks, which is important to do if you think about the fact that governance is primarily concerned with networked, decentralized, non-hierarchical models of interactions across agents. Chapter 5 to me felt a bit like it was there as space filler, because I really didn’t think we needed yet another discussion on the role of the state. But then again, a number of my colleagues just published a series of editorials in the journal Governance on whether the public administration literature is neglecting the state, so maybe I am the one who is in the wrong here.

Chapter 7 summarizes how the policy process framework links to the governance literature and the role that implementation plays, as well as a discussion on studying implementation as governance research. Frankly, this section seemed to me overwrought but I think it’s worth having this kind of discussion. Chapter 7 gets to the nitty-gritty details of how we research implementation, where Chapter 8 focuses on how we actually implement implementation research (yes I know this sounds horrendous, but it’s pretty much what Hill and Hupe are discussing in this chapter). Finally, Chapter 9 on the future of implementation studies does something completely bizarre: goes back to the distinction between governance and implementation (e.g. “studying governance” and “studying implementation”) instead of a combined “studying implementation within an operational governance context”, which was the whole premise of the book.

Overall, I loved Hill and Hupe and it will be a book I will be referring back to, although I should also sing the praises of a book edited by Dr. Gemma Carey, and Professors Kathy Landvogt and Jo Barraket, Creating and Implementing Public Policy. I am really looking forward to reading this edited volume, because the cross-sectoral perspective sounds extraordinarily promising. Plus, it allows me to shift again the gender balance away from simply citing and including in my syllabus the works of white males. Again, Hill and Hupe remain a must-read book and I look forward to spending more time working with it and re-reading it for my future policy implementation projects.

You can share this blog post on the following social networks by clicking on their icon.

Posted in academia, governance, policy analysis, policy instruments, public administration, public policy theories.

Tagged with , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.