Symbolic implementation

Ambiguity is often essential in public policy because disparate coalitions need to be built and supporters must declare victory, each perhaps for his/her own reasons. This ambiguity provides room for interpretation to those who must put laws into practice, leading to contingent strategies of implementation. When ambiguity is low with bitter conflict over goals, compliance is contested and outcomes determined by political power. When ambiguity is high and conflict equally high, the strength of local coalitions shapes the outcome. Matland (1995) labels the former political implementation and the latter symbolic implementation.

(Zahariadis and Exadaktylos. 2016;64)

Zahariadis, N. and Exadaktylos, T. 2016. Policies that Succeed and Programs that Fail: Ambiguity, Conflict, and Crisis in Greek Higher Education. Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 44 (1), p. 59-82.

Matland, Richard E. 1995. “Synthesizing the Implementation Literature: The Ambiguity-Conflict Model of Policy Implementation.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 5 (2): 145–74.

An interviewee conjectured that despite rhetoric to the contrary ministers actually favor centralization and undermine their own reforms for political gain. Supporting the statement, a former university rector told us Greek politicians routinely undermine enacted changes for fear of losing political control, illustrating the symbolic elements of implementation.

(Zahariadis and Exadaktylos. 2016;73)


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