Implementing Federal Policy: Confronting State Capacity and Will


  • Acknowledgements: The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Awards R305C050055 and R305B090009 to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the U.S. Department of Education. We wish to thank three anonymous referees and participants of the American Politics Workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.


This article identifies two key constructs likely to influence implementation of federal policy. It theorizes that states' institutional capacity and political will may constrain or facilitate application of national initiatives, and offers a way to reorganize implementation analyses. The argument is applied in the education policy arena using several years of data to examine how resources and political will influence state test rigor under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). We hypothesize that better resourced and more conservative states are less likely to develop rigorous exams. Using a multilevel model, we find that state-level capacity and political will (notably state-level partisanship and preexisting accountability regimes) explain a substantial portion of variance in response to NCLB. These findings suggest in particular that implementation researchers should more often take note of explicitly political factors like state partisanship to anticipate how layers of government interact as they translate policy into practice.

Related Articles:

Patrick, Barbara. 2012. “Performance Policies, Needs, and Expectancy Theory: Are States Using Performance Policies to Build Highly Functional Workforces?Politics & Policy 40 (4): 592-627.

McGrath, Robert J. 2009. “Implementation Theory Revisited … Again: Lessons from the State Children's Health Insurance Program.” Politics & Policy 37 (2): 309-336.

Grady, Dennis O., and Kathleen M. Simon. 2002. “Political Restraints and Bureaucratic Discretion: The Case of State Government Rule Making.” Politics & Policy 30 (4): 646-679.

Related Media:

Film Clip: Hamilton. 2012. “No Child Left Behind: Ten Years Later.” RAND Multimedia .

Various Resources: RAND Corporation. 2012. “NCLB.” RAND Education .

Identificamos dos factores que posiblemente influencian la implementación de políticas federales. Argumentamos que la capacidad institucional y la voluntad política de los estados puede restringir o facilitar la aplicación de iniciativas nacionales, y ofrecemos una forma de reorganizar los análisis de implementación. Aplicamos nuestro argumento al área de las políticas educativas usando información de muchos años para examinar la influencia de los recursos y la voluntad política estatal en el rigor de las pruebas en la iniciativa No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Nuestra hipótesis es que estados con mejores recursos y más conservadores son menos probables a desarrollar exámenes rigurosos. Usando un modelo multinivel, encontramos que la capacidad a nivel estatal y la voluntad política (en particular el nivel de partidismo estatal y niveles pre-existentes de responsabilidad) pueden explicar una cantidad significativa en la variación de respuesta a NCLB.