Elusive implementation: An ethnographic study of intersectoral policymaking for health

Ditte Heering Holt*, Morten Hulvej Rod, Susanne Boch Waldorff, Tine Tjørnhøj-Thomsen

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

    197 Downloads (Pure)


    Background: For more than 30 years policy action across sectors has been celebrated as a necessary and viable way to affect the social factors impacting on health. In particular intersectoral action on the social determinants of health is considered necessary to address social inequalities in health. However, despite growing support for intersectoral policymaking, implementation remains a challenge. Critics argue that public health has remained naïve about the policy process and a better understanding is needed. Based on ethnographic data, this paper conducts an in-depth analysis of a local process of intersectoral policymaking in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges posed by implementation. To help conceptualize the process, we apply the theoretical perspective of organizational neo-institutionalism, in particular the concepts of rationalized myth and decoupling. Methods: On the basis of an explorative study among ten Danish municipalities, we conducted an ethnographic study of the development of a municipal-wide implementation strategy for the intersectoral health policy of a medium-sized municipality. The main data sources consist of ethnographic field notes from participant observation and interview transcripts. Results: By providing detailed contextual description, we show how an apparent failure to move from policy to action is played out by the ongoing production of abstract rhetoric and vague plans. We find that idealization of universal intersectoralism, inconsistent demands, and doubts about economic outcomes challenge the notion of implementation as moving from rhetoric to action. Conclusion: We argue that the 'myth' of intersectoralism may be instrumental in avoiding the specification of action to implement the policy, and that the policy instead serves as a way to display and support good intentions and hereby continue the process. On this basis we expand the discussion on implementation challenges regarding intersectoral policymaking for health.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number54
    JournalBMC Health Services Research
    Number of pages12
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • Health in all policies
    • Implementation
    • Intersectoral collaboration
    • Intersectoral policymaking
    • Local government
    • Municipal health promotion
    • Policy process
    • Public Health
    • Humans
    • Health Equity
    • Social Determinants of Health/legislation & jurisprudence
    • Anthropology, Cultural
    • Denmark/epidemiology
    • Policy Making
    • Cities/legislation & jurisprudence
    • Health Policy/economics


    Dive into the research topics of 'Elusive implementation: An ethnographic study of intersectoral policymaking for health'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this