Approaches to the Study of Public Policy


Surprisingly, a generally accepted definition of public policy has been elusive. Some texts define public policy as simply what government does. Others say that it is the stated principles which guide the actions of government. Still others say that the discussion of a definition contributes little and move quickly to chapters of case studies in such issue areas as the economy, crime, environment, and health.

The definitions reveal presumptions that fall into three general camps, which I will call here the nominalist, the realist, and the critical realist camps. For purposes of clarity and consistency, a fuller discussion follows.

1. Nominalism in Public Policy

The nominalists, who came before the realists, took government and political officials at their word. Public policy was the logical and expected extension of articulated principles, consistently applied. What was stated as the official policy was therefore considered to be the actual policy, ending the discussion. The nominalist position naively took for granted that what the government and elected officials said they would do is what government actually did. The correct object of study, from this perspective, is the statement of principles which guided governmental action. Study the principle through the official document or spoken word and you have studied the policy-as-concept. Nominalists relegated such details as implementation to what was considered the less significant field of public administration.

The original students of public policy examined policy making through the study of legislative history. They ended their investigation after a law or rule was promulgated, perhaps even an oration by a public official. What followed next, implementation, was simply a logical matter of proper public administration. Policy and administration were sharply divided but policy was considered vastly more interesting, intellectually challenging, and important.

Today, the withdrawal of investigation in journalism, especially in short televised clips, allows political rhetoric to proliferate without the constraint of fact. A political leader, or even a surrogate, can simply utter a phrase with little concern for veracity. Short-term evasion, half-truths, or averting the topic thwarts accountability and transparency. Trust in government and politics erodes.

2. Realism in Public Policy

Realists were more skeptical, refusing to take what was stated at face value. Rather, this approach views public policy as what was actually done, not merely what was said would be done. Realists were occupied with concrete actions and behaviors, rather than stated positions and principles. Study not the subjective, the stated idea but the objective action in the world, the real policy-in-action. Attorney General for President Nixon, John Mitchell had this in mind when he said to the American public, "Watch what we do, not what we say."

The Realist position expands the scope of public policy analysis. Policy becomes deed, extends to the administration of the policy, now an essential part of the sequence of policy-making, and the whole endeavor becomes subject to systematic explanation and evaluation. The prior question of why an issue had become an instance of policy-making, formerly ignored, now begs the question of the consideration of agenda-construction. The legislative history is still included, but tells only a part of the story.

However, merely calling attention to all actions of government does not get us very far. The definition expands too broadly, failing to distinguish among instances of routine acts of government, such as granting marriage licenses and inspecting buildings for violations of regulations. We need a more restrictive definition than to claim that public policy is the entirety of public affairs.

3. Critical Realism in Public Policy

Critical Realists are even more skeptical, knowing that the stakes of public policy are high, that power comes to bear, that money changes hands, and that those involved have a compelling interest to disguise their actions. Hence, merely investigating the actions introduces a bias towards positivism, studying only that which reveals itself as observable fact. The Critical Realist tries to uncover the hidden truths.

The Public Policy Web Site follows the Critical Realist prescription: Public policy is not what is stated, but what is actually done, critically assessed. But this forces us to confront two inherent problems: A more comprehensive boundary must be constructed to include the domain of public policy, rather than merely claim that public policy is the entirety of what government does. We solve this problem with the use of the Public Policy Cycle.

Next Steps

The discussion above points to the next steps:

  1. An extended definition of public policy, narrowed down and given focus. This is an attempt to synthesize qualities from a variety of definitions. I will offer both a simple and an elaborate definition.

  2. The explanation of the working model, the Public Policy Cycle.

The distinctions among the Nominalist, the Realist, and the Critical Realist positions are fundamental to our working definition of public policy. This stance analytically distinguishes between thought and action, empiricism and criticism. Truth is not merely the correspondence of statement with observed practice, but the critical uncovering of meaning in the robust realm of action.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: June 16, 2001 | Last Update: 05/28/2014