The United States of America represents an historic achievement in self-government. Yet, Americans, while proud of their heritage, have appeared increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of their governments -- federal, state, and local.

No longer do we seem to regard elected politicians as public servants practicing statecraft. No longer do we assume that government pursues our interests with vigor, honor, and intelligence. It may now be hard to imagine, but widespread confidence in government had been the norm prior to the Viet Nam War and the Watergate scandal. The epic recession of 2008-2009, the war and occupation of Iraq, and the disaster of hurricane Katrina provide recent cases that erode popular confidence in government. What has happened? A reflection on the basic phrase, public policy, is a good place to start our inquiry.

Deconstructing Policy

Consider the basic term, policy. The word policy contains a hidden ambiguity. The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of the word and offers two starkly contrasting meanings.

  1. That which is closer to its modern usage refers to the political skill needed in statecraft to achieve an orderly civil administration.
  2. The older usage takes on a connotation which is more sinister: political cunning, scheming, and maneuvering to achieve an advantage over political rivals.

Is the second meaning displacing the first? This course reflects the underlying schism between those who view public policy as an exercise in beneficial and rational analysis and those who see political manipulation at work, perhaps in the tradition of Machiavelli's Prince.

Most texts in public policy present that the policy-making system essentially works well and deserves our participation and support, but then qualifies its efficacy as but minor deviations from an essentially productive and honest enterprise. Public policy is certainly encumbered by the sheer complexity of firmly established political processes, by entrenched bureaucratic procedures, and by the frictions inherent within the scale, complexity, and diversity of the United States of America, such as the lingering legacy of race and the sharp sectional divide into Red and Blue states. The separation of powers, built into our Constitutional framework, is intended to preserve liberty, and is certainly not designed to streamline the functions of government. Historical issues persist, such as the race prejudice that betrays respect for the individual and the equality under the law which our Constitution extols. While government might not be able to dictate beliefs, values, and changes in behavior, citizens still look to government to solve problems that can not be practically brought elsewhere, but persistently remain unhappy with the overall results. Health policy comes to mind.

Are our expectations too high? Are the problems coming to the public agenda beyond the capacity of the American political system to alleviate? We will address public policy in this spirit.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork | wayne@profwork.com
Initialized: May 22, 2001 | Last Update: 5/25/2009