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The Public Policy Cycle

Over the last twenty years, several texts in the field have systematically organized the subject around a hypothetical process model. Even the public policy entry in the The Encyclopedia Britannica organizes its information around the process model.

There are several variants in the stages included within the processes. We will use the notion of a cycle which undergoes five continuous phases:

  1. Agenda setting, including problem identification
  2. Policy formulation, divided into two segments:
    • Analysis, bringing data and theory to bear to predict what actions might work
    • Authorization, actually promulgating the policy through the political process
  3. Implementation, putting the policy into practice
  4. Budgeting, raising and spending money
  5. Evaluation, discovering if the policy works or not, and possibly terminating the policy.

Since evaluation returns to the agenda phase, the process closes upon itself. There are some advantages to this approach. The student leaves with a sense of orderly sequence, a kind of anatomy-in-motion, rather than, an ephemeral survey of recent policy developments whose specifics are not likely to be repeated. If the cycle offers an orderly, comprehensive, and internally consistent explanation of how policy works, it stands to reason that it can also be used to trace faults in that process, and that those faults, once identified, can be traced to prior and subsequent stages.

The cycle represents the field of public policy as a synopsis, an integrated whole, and as a process, a continuity of sequential actions. The cycle provides a systematic perspective by which to recognize the overall flow of policy, interconnect events, and come away with a more comprehensive and durable understanding than had we focused on particular aspects of public policy.

Beware of the mistake of reification, the substitution of an abstraction for the concrete, real-world event. Do not confuse the map with the territory, the abstraction with the substantial, the ideal with the real. Our aim is to clarify, not mystify.

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The Public Policy Web
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
September 4, 2001