Public Policy

What Is Public Policy?

With the institution of modern government becoming more complex and increasingly expanding to provide an extensive array of welfare services that serve the interests of an increasing proportion of the population, it makes it necessary to understand what public policy is all about.

As public policy studies are now popular, everything government does is labeled policy. Today we usually talk of various government policies such as foreign policy, defence policy, tax policy, health care policy, economic policy, education policy—and the like.

What then is Public Policy?

As with all social sciences, it is difficult to establish a uniform definition for public policy. The following are various definitions, offered by different authors:

  • “The actions of government and the intentions that determine those actions”.
  • — (Cochran et al. in Birkland, 2005: 18)
  • “Whatever governments choose to do or not to do.”
  • — (Dye in Birkland, 2005: 18)

    We concur with this definition because government’s inaction can have just as great an impact on society as government action
  • ‘Policy’ is a general term used to describe a formal decision or plan of action adopted by an actor … to achieve a particular goal … ‘Public policy’ is a more specific term applied to a formal decision or a plan of action that has been taken by, or has involved, a state organization.
  • — (Richards and Smith, 2002: 1)

However, a somewhat simplified definition of public policy has been adopted for this study.

Public policy, stated more simply, is the sum of government activities, whether pursued directly or through agents, as those activities have an influence on the lives of citizens.

What's this?

Now, we can say, public policy is used to reference what government does in order to meet the yearnings and aspirations of the people.

For example, if government’s objective is to eradicate poverty; rural development, youth empowerment, and industrial development are shaped as policies for which government will then implement as practical action aimed at eradicating poverty.

Public policy, therefore, can also be considered all authorized means devised by government in order to achieve its set goals and objectives. Public policy is thus a mechanism used in translating goals or objectives into practical actions that can affect positively the lives of the people.

Operating within the confine of that definition, we can distinguish three separate levels of policy, defined by the degree to which they make real differences in the lives of citizens.

  1. At the first level, we have policy choices—decisions made by politicians, civil servants, or others granted authority that are directed toward using public power to affect the lives of citizens. Legislative bodies, presidents, governors, administrators, and pressure groups, among others, make such policy choices. The outcome of those choices is a policy that can be put into action.
  2. At the second level, we can speak of policy outputs—policy choices being put into action. Here, the government is involved in doing things: spending money, hiring people, or promulgating regulations that are designed to affect the economy and society. Outputs may be virtually synonymous with the term program as it is commonly used in government circles.
  3. Finally, at the third level, is the policy impacts—the effects that policy choices and policy outputs have on citizens, such as making them wealthier or healthier or the air they breathe less polluted. These impacts may be influenced in part by other factors in the society—economic productivity, education, and the like—but they also reflect to some degree the success or failure of public policy choices and outputs.

These policy impacts also may reflect the interaction of a number of different programmes. Successful alleviation of poverty, for example, may depend on a number of social programmes, education, economic programmes, and the tax system. If any of these does not perform well, it may be impossible for government, and the society that it represents, to reach its desired goals.

Characteristics Of Public Policy

The special characteristics of public policies are derived from the fact that they are formulated by what David EastonOpens in new window termed as the “authorities” in a political system, namely, “elders, paramount chiefs, executives, legislators, judges, administrators, councilors and the like”. The following are the key characteristics of public policy:

  • Firstly, the hallmark of public policy is a purposive or result-oriented action rather than random behaviour.
  • Secondly, public policy refers to the action or decisional pattern by public administrators on a particular issue over a period rather than their separate discrete decisions on that matter in ad hoc fashion.
  • Thirdly, policy is what governments actually do and what subsequently happens, rather than what they intend to do or say they would do.
  • Fourthly, public policy may be either positive or negative in form. Positively, it may involve some form of governmental action concerning some social problems. Negatively, it may involve a decision by government officials not to take action on a matter on which governmental opinion, attitude or action is required.
  • Fifthly, public policy, at least in its positive form is based on law and is authoritative. It has a legal sanction behind it which is potentially coercive in nature and is binding on all citizens. This is the main point of difference between public policy and policies of individuals or private business entities.
  • Finally, public policy is action that requires flexibility in order to cope with changing desires of the people, shaped in consonance with their socio-cultural environment.