Implementer Versus Implementor Failure: Acknowledged and Ignored Interlocking Contingencies in Social Interventions
In any field that tackles social issues with schemes – such as crime reduction and policing intervention schemes, strategic applications, templates, frameworks and approaches – success will be contingent upon the skills, motivation, intelligence, gravitas and all round mettle of the staff involved in implementing them. And yet due consideration of the importance of the personal abilities of the implementors of 'schemes' is weirdly absent on official government websites promoting ‘what works’, ‘promising’ and effective practice.
A well-designed crime reduction scheme may be reflexive and adaptive so that it can be tailored to a specific crime problem in a particular place, and adaptive to unique variations in the social setting of the problem. But can any such scheme possibly be so powerful that it can adapt to the mediocrity, or worse, of those hired to manage its implementation?
David Kennedy (2010), the originator of the famously ‘successful’ Boston Gun Project (Operation Ceasefire) describes how his scheme was successfully re-applied in some places but failed in others. When it failed, Professor Kennedy explains that this happened because the scheme was not implemented properly. What Kennedy fails to address is why it was not implemented properly. Was it:
1. Implementer failure (component or rank and file staff inadequacy) because the scheme cannot be implemented properly in particular settings or at a particular time and/or with particular ranks?
or was it
2. due to implementor failure (key managerial inadequacy)?
Failure to consider the importance of the individual abilities and the behaviour of implementors (managers) charged with making a success of any social intervention leaves us with a menu of ‘best’, ‘recommended’, ‘good’ or promising practice schemes that will simply fail to deliver in the wrong hands.
The fact that this issue is not addressed on those official websites that promote these menus of social interventions is a serious handicap to knowledge progression. By way of example, my own Market Reduction Approach to theft (MRA) is recommended as good, promising or effective ‘best practice’ by official government websites in the USA, UK, Australia and New Zealand (Sutton 2011) – and is praised in many academic texts . And yet the only time the MRA was ever evaluated the results were inconclusive - due to the reported failure of the two English police forces involved (Kent and Manchester ) to implement the scheme according to official guidance (Hale et al 2004) . Can it be implemented properly? Perhaps the MRA is badly desinged and so will be forever doomed to implementer (component failure/inadequacy). Alternatively it might be potentially good practice that has failed to date simply as a result of manager (implementor) inadequacy. We don't know. And that is all there is to it.
Until we begin to seriously address this question for schemes – such as Operation Ceasefire, the MRA and other templates for social action - they should not be promoted as ‘best’, ‘promising’ or ‘effective’ practice.
Today the British Government is seriously considering the option of funding the implementation of Operation Ceasefire's template to tackle gang crime (Travis 2011). If it does then the Prime Minister David Cameron would be wise to address in advance the issue of implementor inadequacy. Because all too often in life mediocre and inadequate individuals are recruited to perform functions that are beyond them – often for no other reason than that they look and sound like the general public thinks an ideal leader should (Gladwell 2005).
Conclusion and the way forward
Unless future research reveals that certain social intervention templates are so well designed that they are powerful enough to ameliorate the problem of mediocre and/or incompetent implementors then we need to know more so that we can seek to avoid the harmful effects of implementor failure on knowledge progression regarding what works to make the world a better place.
Gladwell, M. (2005) Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York. Little Brown and Co.
Hale, C. Harris, C. Uglow, S. Gilling. L and Netten, A. (2004). Targeting the markets for stolen goods: two targeted policing initiative projects. Home Office Development and Practice Report 17.
Kennedy, D. (2010) . David Kennedy . In Fox, A. and Gold, E. (2010) Daring to Fail: First-person Stories of Criminal Justice Reform. New York. Center for Court Innovation
Thanks for a well written post. I find it to be the case that government and official bodies don't always move towards best practices for a few reasons. Of course one of the main ones would be economic reasons - best practices are sometimes expensive.
However, I think another reason has to do with replicability. Governments seem only interested in programs and program policy that can be picked up and plunked down in another neighbourhood, in another city, in another country. To accomplish this, they (mis)use fidelity checklists. If these checklists of how well program implementation matches the written curriculum (despite positive results), the program is scraped. After all, what interest would a funder have in a program that is not replicable, and consistent? I speak of consistency in terms of process and application, rather than outcome. This seems to be an obstacle for the introduction of best practices into program and policy creation.
I think I've read about what you refer to as "The Cookie-Cutter" approach to favoured social interventions. In other words, as you describe the situation in your comment, schemes that are favoured are those that (1) do not require - or (2) are not open to the idea that they may require bespoke tailoring to fit the 'client' or target -group.
I agree this is another problem that we know little about in terms of the extent to which evidence-based research might suggest promising schemes are being systematically rejected in favour of lower-quality off-the-peg ones.
In both cases ( bespoke and off-the-peg schemes) potential implementor failure is a strangely neglected contingency.