Public policy

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Public policy is the process by which governments translate their political vision into programmes and actions to deliver ‘outcomes — desired changes in the real world’. The ‘real world’ is constantly changing and this has resulted in the movement towards greater use of evidence in policy design, making and implementation. Rational choice theory, or now more frequently known as evidence-based policy, argues that focusing on scientific evidence, instead of history and culture, should guide our public policy making.



The foundation of public policy is composed of national constitutional laws and regulations. Further substrates include both judicial interpretations and regulations which are generally authorized by legislation. Public policy is considered strong when it solves problems efficiently and effectively, serves and supports governmental institutions and policies, and encourages active citizenship. [1]

In his book 'Advanced Introduction to Public Policy', B. Guy Peters defines public policy as "the set of activities that governments engage in for the purpose of changing their economy and society", effectively saying that public policy is legislation brought in with the aim of benefiting or impacting the electorate in some way. [2] In another definition, author B. Dente in his book 'Understanding Policy Decisions' explains public policy as "a set of actions that affect the solution of a policy problem, i.e. a dissatisfaction regarding a certain need, demand or opportunity for public intervention. Its quality is measured by the capacity to create public value." [3]

Other scholars define public policy as a system of "courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives." [4] Public policy is commonly embodied in "constitutions, legislative acts, and judicial decisions." [5]

Public policy focuses on the decisions that create the outputs of a political system, such as transport policies, the management of a public health service, the administration of a system schooling and the organization of a defence force. [6]

In the United States, this concept refers not only to the result of policies, but more broadly to the decision-making and analysis of governmental decisions. As an academic discipline, public policy is studied by professors and students at public policy schools of major universities throughout the country. The U.S. professional association of public policy practitioners, researchers, scholars, and students is the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.

Much of public policy is concerned with evaluating decision-making in governments and public bureaucracies. [6]

Public policy making and the Implementation of Public policy

Public policy making can be characterized as a dynamic, complex, and interactive system through which public problems are identified and resolved by creating new public policy or by reforming existing public policy. [7]

Public problems can originate in endless ways and require different policy responses (such as regulations, subsidies, import quotas, and laws) on the local, national, or international level. The public problems that influence public policy making can be of economic, social, or political nature [8]

The Government holds a legal monopoly to initiate or threaten physical force to achieve its ends when necessary. For instance, in times of chaos when quick decision making is needed. [9] .

Public policy making is an exhausting and time-consuming 'policy cycle'. The basic stages of policy cycle are as follows; a problem is identified, a policy response is formulated, the preferred solution is then selected and implemented, and finally the policy is evaluated. However, the evaluation stage takes an in depth look into what can be learnt from the process as a whole, whether the original problem has been solved, and if not, what is recommended as an alternative course of action. Thus, returning policy makers to the very first step; the identification.

Each system is influenced by different public problems and issues, and has different stakeholders; as such, each requires different public policy. [10]

In public policy making, numerous individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations and interest groups compete and collaborate to influence policymakers to act in a particular way. [11]

The large set of actors in the public policy process, such as politicians, civil servants, lobbyists, domain experts, and industry or sector representatives, use a variety of tactics and tools to advance their aims, including advocating their positions publicly, attempting to educate supporters and opponents, and mobilizing allies on a particular issue. [8]

Many actors can be important in the public policy process, but government officials ultimately choose public policy in response to the public issue or problem at hand. In doing so, government officials are expected to meet public sector ethics and take the needs of all project stakeholders into account. [10]

It is however worth noting that what public policy is put forward can be influenced by the political stance of the party in power. Following the 2008/2009 financial crisis, David Cameron's Conservative party looked to implement a policy of austerity in 2010 after winning the General Election that year, to shore up the economy and diminish the UK's national debt. [12] Whilst the Conservatives saw reducing the national debt as an absolute priority, the Labour Party, since the effects of Conservative austerity became apparent, have slated the policy for its 'needless' pressure on the working classes and those reliant on welfare, their 2019 election manifesto stating "Tory cuts [have] pushed our public services to breaking point” and that  “the Conservatives have starved our education system of funding”. [13] This is a good example of how varying political beliefs can impact what is perceived as paramount for the electorate.

Since societies have changed in the past decades, the public policy making system changed too. In the 2010s, public policy making is increasingly goal-oriented, aiming for measurable results and goals, and decision-centric, focusing on decisions that must be taken immediately. [10]

Furthermore, mass communications and technological changes such as the widespread availability of the Internet have caused the public policy system to become more complex and interconnected. [14] The changes pose new challenges to the current public policy systems and pressures leaders to evolve to remain effective and efficient. [10]

Public policies come from all governmental entities and at all levels: legislatures, courts, bureaucratic agencies, and executive offices at national, local and state levels. On the federal level, public policies are laws enacted by Congress, executive orders issued by the president, decisions handed down by the US Supreme Court, and regulations issued by bureaucratic agencies. [15]

On the local, public policies include city ordinances, fire codes, and traffic regulations. They also take the form of written rules and regulations of city governmental departments: the police, fire departments, street repair, or building inspection. On the state level, public policies involve laws enacted by the state legislatures, decisions made by state courts, rules developed by state bureaucratic agencies, and decisions made by governors. [15]

Data-driven policy

Data-driven policy is a policy designed by a government based on existing data, evidence, rational analysis and use of information technology to crystallize problems and highlight effective solutions. [16] Data-driven policy making aims to make use of data and collaborate with citizens to co-create policy. [17] Policy makers can now make use of new data sources and technological developments like Artificial Intelligence to gain new insights and make policy decisions which contribute to societal development.

Rational Choice Theory/ Evidence-based policy

Evidence-based policy is a term now commonly used to refer to Rational Choice Theory. This transition occurred because political actors did not want to carry the connotations that rational choice theory does. Therefore, the theory has simply become associated with evidence, what rational choice theory admires most. This approach to public policy attempts to ensure that every decision is of high-quality and focused on logic.

Some have promoted particular types of evidence as 'best' for policymakers to consider, including scientifically rigorous evaluation studies such as randomized controlled trials to identify programs and practices capable of improving policy-relevant outcomes. However, some areas of policy-relevant knowledge are not well served by quantitative research, leading to debate about the methods and instruments that are considered critical for the collection of relevant evidence. For instance, policies that are concerned with human rights, public acceptability, or social justice may require other evidence than what randomized trials provide, or may require moral philosophical reasoning in addition to considerations of evidence of intervention effect (which randomised trials are principally designed to provide [18] ). Good data, analytical skills and political support to the use of scientific information, as such, are typically seen as the important elements of an evidence-based approach. [19]

In the UK

Although evidence-based policy can be traced as far back as the fourteenth century, it was more recently popularized by the Blair Government in the United Kingdom. [20] The Blair Government said they wanted to end the ideological led-based decision making for policy making. [20] For example, a UK Government white paper published in 1999 ("Modernising Government") noted that Government must "produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms". [21]

Evidence-based policy is associated with Adrian Smith because in his 1996 presidential address to the Royal Statistical Society, Smith questioned the current process of policy making and urged for a more “evidence-based approach” commenting that it has “valuable lessons to offer”. [22]

Some policy scholars now avoid using the term evidence-based policy, using others such as evidence informed. This language shift allows continued thinking about the underlying desire to improve evidence use in terms of its rigor or quality, while avoiding some of the key limitations or reductionist ideas at times seen with the evidence-based language. Still, the language of evidence-based policy is widely used and, as such, can be interpreted to reflect a desire for evidence to be used well or appropriately in one way or another – such as by ensuring systematic consideration of rigorous and high quality policy relevant evidence, or by avoiding biased and erroneous applications of evidence for political ends. [23]

In the USA

Unlike the UK, the USA has a largely devolved government, with power at local, state and federal level. Due to these various levels of governance it can often be difficult to coordinate passing bills and legislation, and there is often disagreement. Despite this, the system allows for citizens to be relatively involved in inputting legislation. Furthermore, each level of government is set up in a similar way with similar rules, and all pump money into creating what is hoped to be effective legislation. Policy creation in America is often seen as unique to other states. [24]

Academic discipline

As an academic discipline, public policy brings in elements of many social science fields and concepts, including economics, sociology, political economy, social policy, program evaluation, policy analysis, and public management, all as applied to problems of governmental administration, management, and operations. [25] At the same time, the study of public policy is distinct from political science or economics, in its focus on the application of theory to practice. While the majority of public policy degrees are master's and doctoral degrees, there are several universities that offer undergraduate education in public policy.

Traditionally, the academic field of public policy focused on domestic policy. However, the wave of economic globalization that occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries created a need for a subset of public policy that focused on global governance, especially as it relates to issues that transcend national borders such as climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. [26] Consequently, many traditional public policy schools had to adjust their curricula to better suit this new policy landscape, as well as develop entirely new curricula altogether. [27]

See also

Related Research Articles

Management science (MS) is the broad interdisciplinary study of problem solving and decision making in human organizations, with strong links to management, economics, business, engineering, management consulting, and other fields. It uses various scientific research-based principles, strategies, and analytical methods including mathematical modeling, statistics and numerical algorithms to improve an organization's ability to enact rational and accurate management decisions by arriving at optimal or near optimal solutions to complex decision problems. Management science helps businesses to achieve goals using various scientific methods.

Public choice, or public choice theory, is "the use of economic tools to deal with traditional problems of political science". Its content includes the study of political behavior. In political science, it is the subset of positive political theory that studies self-interested agents and their interactions, which can be represented in a number of ways – using standard constrained utility maximization, game theory, or decision theory.

A country's foreign policy, also called foreign relations or foreign affairs policy, consists of self-interest strategies chosen by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve goals within its international relations milieu. The approaches are strategically employed to interact with other countries. The study of such strategies is called foreign policy analysis. In recent decades, due to the deepening level of globalization and transnational activities, states also must interact with non-state actors. These interactions evaluated and monitored in seeking the benefits of bilateral and multilateral international cooperation.

Decision-making Cognitive process resulting in choosing a course of action

In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities. Decision-making is the process of identifying and choosing alternatives based on the values, preferences and beliefs of the decision-maker. Every decision-making process produces a final choice, which may or may not prompt action.

A policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. A policy is a statement of intent, and is implemented as a procedure or protocol. Policies are generally adopted by a governance body within an organization. Policies can assist in both subjective and objective decision making. Policies to assist in subjective decision making usually assist senior management with decisions that must be based on the relative merits of a number of factors, and as a result are often hard to test objectively, e.g. work-life balance policy. In contrast policies to assist in objective decision making are usually operational in nature and can be objectively tested, e.g. password policy.

Development communication refers to the use of communication to facilitate social development. Development communication engages stakeholders and policy makers, establishes conducive environments, assesses risks and opportunities and promotes information exchanges to create positive social change via sustainable development. Development communication techniques include information dissemination and education, behavior change, social marketing, social mobilization, media advocacy, communication for social change, and community participation.

Program evaluation is a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer questions about projects, policies and programs, particularly about their effectiveness and efficiency. In both the public and private sectors, stakeholders often want to know whether the programs they are funding, implementing, voting for, receiving or objecting to are producing the intended effect. While program evaluation first focuses around this definition, important considerations often include how much the program costs per participant, how the program could be improved, whether the program is worthwhile, whether there are better alternatives, if there are unintended outcomes, and whether the program goals are appropriate and useful. Evaluators help to answer these questions, but the best way to answer the questions is for the evaluation to be a joint project between evaluators and stakeholders.

Policy analysis is a technique used in public administration to enable civil servants, activists, and others to examine and evaluate the available options to implement the goals of laws and elected officials. The process is also used in the administration of large organizations with complex policies. It has been defined as the process of "determining which of various policies will achieve a given set of goals in light of the relations between the policies and the goals."

Governance comprises all of the processes of governing – whether undertaken by the government of a state, by a market or by a network – over a social system and whether through the laws, norms, power or language of an organized society. It relates to "the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions". In lay terms, it could be described as the political processes that exist in and between formal institutions.

A macroeconomic model is an analytical tool designed to describe the operation of the problems of economy of a country or a region. These models are usually designed to examine the comparative statics and dynamics of aggregate quantities such as the total amount of goods and services produced, total income earned, the level of employment of productive resources, and the level of prices.

Government failure, in the context of public economics, is an economic inefficiency caused by a government intervention, if the inefficiency would not exist in a true free market. It can be viewed in contrast to a market failure, which is an economic inefficiency that results from the free market itself, and can potentially be corrected through government regulation. The idea of government failure is associated with the policy argument that, even if particular markets may not meet the standard conditions of perfect competition required to ensure social optimality, government intervention may make matters worse rather than better.

Open-source governance is a political philosophy which advocates the application of the philosophies of the open-source and open-content movements to democratic principles to enable any interested citizen to add to the creation of policy, as with a wiki document. Legislation is democratically opened to the general citizenry, employing their collective wisdom to benefit the decision-making process and improve democracy.

Evidence-based policy (EBP) is a term often applied in multiple fields of public policy to refer to situations whereby policy decisions are informed by rigorously established objective evidence. Underlying many of the calls for evidence-based policy is often a concern with fidelity to scientific good practice, reflecting the belief that social goals are best served when scientific evidence is used rigorously and comprehensively to inform decisions, rather than in a piecemeal, manipulated, or cherry-picked manner. The move towards evidence-based policy has its roots in the larger movement towards evidence-based practice.

Incrementalism is a method of working by adding to a project using many small incremental changes instead of a few large jumps. Logical incrementalism implies that the steps in the process are sensible. Logical incrementalism focuses on "the Power-Behavioral Approach to planning rather than to the Formal Systems Planning Approach". In public policy, incrementalism is the method of change by which many small policy changes are enacted over time in order to create a larger broad based policy change. This was the theoretical policy of rationality developed by Lindblom to be seen as a middle way between the rational actor model and bounded rationality, as both long term goal driven policy rationality and satisficing were not seen as adequate.

Environmental policy the totality of the government efforts to promoting the protection of the natural environment

Environmental policy is the commitment of an organization or government to the laws, regulations, and other policy mechanisms concerning environmental issues. These issues generally include air and water pollution, waste management, ecosystem management, maintenance of biodiversity, the protection of natural resources, wildlife and endangered species. Concerning environmental policy, the importance of implementation of an eco-energy-oriented policy at a global level to address the issues of global warming and climate changes should be accentuated. Policies concerning energy or regulation of toxic substances including pesticides and many types of industrial waste are part of the topic of environmental policy. This policy can be deliberately taken to direct and oversee human activities and thereby prevent harmful effects on the biophysical environment and natural resources, as well as to make sure that changes in the environment do not have harmful effects on humans.

The rational planning model is a model of the planning process involving a number of rational actions or steps. Taylor (1998) outlines five steps, as follows:

Zoltan J. Acs is an American economist. He is Professor of Management at The London School of Economics (LSE), and a professor at George Mason University, where he teaches in the Schar School of Policy and Government and is the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Public Policy. He is also a visiting professor at Imperial College Business School in London and affiliated with the University of Pecs in Hungary. He is co-editor and founder of Small Business Economics, a leading academic journal.

Network governance is "interfirm coordination that is characterized by organic or informal social system, in contrast to bureaucratic structures within firms and formal relationships between them. The concepts of privatization, public private partnership, and contracting are defined in this context." Network governance constitutes a "distinct form of coordinating economic activity" which contrasts and competes with markets and hierarchies.

Policy Impact Assessments (IAs) are formal, evidence-based procedures that assess the economic, social, and environmental effects of public policy. They have been incorporated into policy making in the OECD countries and the European Commission.

Collaborative e-democracy

Collaborative e-democracy is a democratic conception that combines key features of direct democracy, representative democracy, and e-democracy. The concept was first published at two international academic conferences in 2009.


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Further reading