Re-Conceptualizing the Paradox in (Education) Policy Implementation: Unravelling Perspectives on the Policy/Practice Gap


Series: Education in a Competitive and Globalizing World

BISAC: EDU034000

A review of current (education) policy and practice endorses the view of an apparent paradox in policy implementation. Although tremendous investments (in terms of energy, time and financial resources) are made in enacting policies, there is ample evidence to suggest that policy actors are impervious to policy information. Change agents and implementers of policy are often seen as pursuing different agendas when it comes to the task policy implementation. As aptly asserted by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1993, cited by Shulock, 1999, p. 228), ‘policymakers and implementers’ core beliefs are unaffected by policy information, major policy change results rather from external factors such as inflation and elections’.

This book re-conceptualizes this policy phenomenon for rumination. The book essentially unravels perspectives on the policy implementation paradox, and through that exemplifies the ‘best’ suited approach for demystifying the policy/practice gap to bring understanding to the messiness and contested nature of (education) policy processes. To help draw conceptual leverage on the phenomenon described as the ‘policy implementation paradox’, this eight chapter book performs two major functions. First, Chapters 1 to 4 set the context for the book. Chapter 1 defines (education) policy, and in the process, the traditional problem-solving definition of policy is juxtaposed with the process model, and through that a third conception (i.e. the theoretical eclecticism approach) is gauged to help provide both practical and theoretical bases for understanding how policy and practice exist in dynamic and iterative relationships. Chapters 2 and 3 give insights into how education policy-making is made and implemented respectively to unravel some of the influences on policy processes. Chapter 4 explicates (from within relevant literature) the policy paradox to assist readers to understand perspectives that are advanced in latter chapters to unravel and/or explain the existence or occurrence of this policy phenomenon. Second, Chapters 5 to 7 draw on literature from disparate sources to unravel perspectives on the policy implementation paradox, whilst Chapter 8 presents the key messages that are tangential to achieving the objectives of the book. Overall, Chapter 8 performs three functions. Namely, it:

  1. summarizes perspectives presented in the scholarly literature to demystify and unravel the policy implementation paradox
  2. illustrates the reasons for the choice of the post-modernist perspective as the most appropriate and/or best suited perspective for unravelling this policy phenomenon; and
  3. outlines the relevance (and/or justifications) of the post-modernist conception of policy as both ‘text’ and ‘discourse’ as a framework for understanding the policy implementation paradox and the dynamism of policy processes at large.

The contribution of this book is seen particularly in its ability to leverage the post-modernist conception of policy as both ‘text’ and ‘discourse’ to stress the importance of recognizing the role of implementation in actually changing policy. Brought directly into the context of the policy implementation paradox, the book (drawing on the post-modernist conception of policy) clearly propels the dynamism of policy processes, and uses this to explain the reasons why policy implementation outcomes most often differ from policy-makers’ intentions. First, the book makes the point aptly and forcefully that because policy processes are dynamic, there are usually conflicts among those who make policy as well as those who put policy provisions into practice, about what the important issues or problems for policy are and what the desired policy goals ought to be. Second, it puts down the issue of disconnect between policy intentions in theory and policy implementation outcomes in practice invariably to the active processes involved in interpreting policy. Policy statements, in the view of the book and in the post-modernist tradition, are almost always subject to multiple interpretations and re-interpretations depending upon the standpoint of the people doing the interpretive ‘work’. Third, the policy/practice gap is explained as existing and/or occurring because the practice of policy on the ground is extremely complex, both that which is being ‘described’ by policy and those that are ‘intended’ to put policy into effect or practice. The point, according to the post-modernist thinking on which this book draws, is that simple policy descriptions of practice do not capture the multiplicity and complexity of the practice of policy on the ground, and as such, the implementation of policy in practice almost always means outcomes differ from policy-makers’ intentions.

Against the backdrop of these three reasons alluded to, the book attributes the underlying causes of the policy implementation paradox to two interrelated factors. One, it is argued that the paradox in policy implementation occurs mainly because of what post-modernist thinkers call policy refraction. That is to say, because policies in practice tend to evolve through the interactions of a multiplicity of actors, they become distorted and less coherent as they are interpreted and put into practice by the ‘ground-level’ actors and implementers. Two, it is contended that the emergence of post-modern theory (with its contemporary understanding of the nature of reality and how to ‘go on’ in life) has undermined the ‘modernist’ philosophy to such an extent that older ideas of fixed structures conditioning behaviour and imposing regularity and predictability on social life have become considerably weakened, if not demolished completely. Essentially, the book argues that the post-modern theoretical movement has had tremendous effect of stressing the unpredictability of human behaviour in policy implementation processes, and by extension, the unpredictability of policy outcomes as against policy intentions.

Table of Contents


About the Author



List of Acronyms

Chapter 1. Defining (education) policy

Chapter 2.Understanding education policy-making

Chapter 3. Understanding the concept and nature of (education) policy implementation

Chapter 4. Illuminating the policy implementation paradox: Using examples from education

Chapter 5. The change management perspective on the policy implementation paradox

Chapter 6. The democratic/participatory perspective on the policy implementation paradox

Chapter 7. The post-modernist perspective on the policy implementation paradox

Chapter 8. Relevance of the post-modernist perspective to understanding policy processes





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