Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Traceable Tasks and Complex Policies: When Politics Matter for Policy Implementation

July 30, 2019

Associate Professor Susan Moffitt

Traceable Tasks and Complex Policies: When Politics Matter for Policy Implementation, co-written by Susan Moffitt, was published in Policy Studies Journal on June 17, 2019. 

When do policy implementers carry out the letter of the law but not its spirit; and when are they more likely to implement in ways that fully express the law’s explicit goals? Put differently, when is implementation illusory? These questions have vexed scholars and policymakers since the earliest days of the American republic, and they are bedrock to democratic governance. Paul Manna and Susan Moffitt take up these questions in the context of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which promoted outcomes-based accountability in American public education. Their work demonstrates how the sub-parts of complex laws, like NCLB, activate different sorts of political energies during implementation due to their many moving parts: illusory implementation varies by sub-policy within broad legislation. Their work also demonstrates the importance of assessing the implementation impact of policies that impose conflicting demands on implementers, such as administrators tasked with implementing both NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Their work cautions against drawing conclusions about implementers by studying a policy in isolation: doing so can misconstrue or misrepresent agency performance, the politics that policy provokes, and the political nature of implementation. 

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