Implementation – What Is It & Why Does It Matter?

Academics and public policy practitioners often spend excruciating amounts of time identifying the most efficient and effective policies. Here Chris Minch discusses that, after all this hard work, an all too common mistake is to neglect the process of implementing these policies.

“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

As the calls for evidence-based policymaking, monitoring and evaluation, and ‘what works’ grow ever louder, the above adage may ring true. Development policymakers and practitioners all over the world are clamouring for innovative and effective interventions.

But actually taking these interventions and turning them into positive results in the real world is an extremely complicated process that is frequently not done well. So how do we ensure that policies or programmes (or mousetraps) will actually deliver results for people in need?

Well maybe we can’t. But to give us the best possible chance, enter: Implementation Science.

Implementation tends to be a word that people bandy about without close examination or thought as to what it actually means. At its simplest, implementation is defined as the way in which a plan for doing something is carried out. It focusses on operationalising a plan – “the How, rather than the What”. It can refer to the delivery of any policy, service, or intervention.

Ed Schipul / Creative Commons License

Ed Schipul / Creative Commons License

However, successful implementation involves overcoming challenges at multiple levels of society. This makes it very difficult. Implementation Science, then, is the study of the best methods for improving the quality of implementation. Essentially, it formalises learning from good and bad examples of implementation, using it to guide practitioners to successfully overcome these challenges and convert innovations into positive results.

Apart from making logical sense, how do we know that focussing on implementation actually makes a difference? Numerous policies and programmes have been hyped as the next big thing in development before failing to deliver on their promise and being swiftly dismissed as fads (think of the Washington Consensus).

Granted, some of these ideas may have been junk. But it’s also likely that many failed to jump the ‘implementation gap’ – the original research was good but when trying to scale it up or apply it in different contexts, it wasn’t implemented correctly. For example, one study has found that controlling issues relating to the implementation of a service (in this case, an intervention to prevent youth substance abuse) would have made the intervention 12 times more effective.

Microfinance for development provides an informative example. It originated in 1970’s Bangladesh, where Professor Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank. The Bank aimed to deliver small loans to impoverished people who could not supply any collateral, thus giving them more opportunity to set up/expand income generating activities. The idea was deemed so influential that, in 2006, Yunus and the bank itself were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, the actual impact of microfinance has subsequently been questioned and the general feeling is that it has failed to live up to its potential. Part of the reason was the rapid deviation from the Grameen Bank’s original, donor-funded model. The political and ideological shift towards neoliberalism in the 1980’s and 1990’s caused microfinance to adopt a commercial model that aimed to create self-sustainability through higher interest rates, private ownership and profit-driven incentives.

Mediamolecule / Creative Commons License

Mediamolecule / Creative Commons License

The result has been a loss of fidelity and the overreach of microfinance into areas beyond its remit. Loans have been provided to groups of people who are, for a multitude of reasons, unable to invest it in productive or entrepreneurial activities. This leaves them with ever-increasing debts that they have no hope of paying back. Further, microfinance institutions have failed to anticipate that demand for microcredit is limited. As a result, new firms moving into the sector have simply displaced old ones, adding little value in terms of jobs and investment. The system is not achieving its full potential.

As one webpage states: “the core of microfinance programmes go beyond mere access and distribution of money, to deeper issues of how money is utilised”. As such, there is a need to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead identify suitable product types for specific contexts. There is a need to identify community leaders and groups who can take responsibility for managing and informing microfinance projects. There is a need to accept that microfinance has limits and should not be rolled out universally.

Implementation Science can help to uncover some of these deeper issues and provide important insights into dynamic factors such as leadership, capacity, learning from experience, evaluation and communication. Future posts will cover some of these elements in more detail and seek to show that, whether it’s microfinance or mousetraps, Implementation Science has a role to play in realising the innovation’s potential for positive change.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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