The Public Policy Cycle

The long-time logo of the Policy Studies Organization, a professional association of policy analysts, reflects the orientation of the field to understand public policy as a systematic process:


Think about the diagram above. It illustrates through a classic mythology what political scientist Robert L. Lineberry calls the two faces of the policy process: The Roman God Janus was always depicted as having two faces, one that looked eternally to the left and the other that always faced to the right. Public policy is somewhat like that, and we can imagine its having two such faces.

  1. The first face of policy is that of an output of the political process that presumably causes policies to be developed. In terms of cause and effect this is policy-as-effect, the result of all the constraints, compromises, and conflicts within the political system.

  2. The other face represents policy as the beginning point in a series of subsequent empirical effects and focuses on policy impacts. In the language of the social sciences, the first sees policy as the dependent variable, the second as an independent variable. (Lineberry 71)

The political scientist David Easton is often credited with interpreting political dynamics in terms of a continuous process, a system of interaction (Easton 1957). To Easton, a political system is an interrelated set of activities, roles, and institutions that operates within an environment which provides inputs to the political system and then translates these inputs into policy outputs.

Easton Model

The political actors and institutions act as gatekeepers, filtering demands into the tightly sealed political black box. The gatekeeper function is important, for it determines the political agenda. Most demands on the political system fail to pass through this filter.

The outputs of these political decisions are the actual policies formulated by the political institutions and actors. The impacts of the policy are concrete changes categorized as economic, social, and environmental. Hopefully, the impacts are what were intended, even desired and anticipated, but there may be impacts that were not intended and that might be adverse. Finally, such impacts are perceived and then injected back into the political system as feedback. The majority of agenda items in the political system may come from feedback. Most policy decisions are relatively minor modifications of past policies, a phenomenon called policy succession or incrementalism.

Easton's simple but elegant model was well received. Many political scientists find that it provided a systematic, comprehensive, orderly, coherent, and consistent framework from which to conceptualize political processes. Perhaps it could serve as a scientific statement advancing the field of policy analysis. At least it appealed to those who sought rigor and definition. Policy students recognized that it provided a useful alternative to the historical-institutional approach which had dominated the field. Easton opened up a systematic approach for public policy.

The Public Policy Cycle

Easton cast policy as the output of a closed political process, a sealed black box. Rather than ad hoc, messy, unconnected events, policy could now be depicted as smooth, flowing, logical, and even harmonious. Easton's model could be broken down into particular discrete stages, each understood as a coherent chain of events and given a context by which the chronology could be coherently organized. Thus, events could be logically related to each other and predictions could be made as the analyst anticipated the next stage in the sequence. A methodology was emerging.

Without the appealing design of a logo or diagram, political scientist Charles O. Jones elaborated on the idea of a system and a process, contributing a comprehensive treatment of policy as a cycle, a logical sequence of recurring events. This replaced Easton's black box, a reductionist depiction of the political process, and provided more definition without losing the coherence provided by a systematic model. Further, Jones attached elements of analysis to the stages in the cycle, creating an orderly, but somewhat arbitrary, container by which to logically organize a comprehensive and integrated study of public policy. Jones's treatment was seminal.

Jones did not offer a picture or logo, but I have:

cycle logo

The policy cycle has thus been cast as steps that display the sequential flow depicted by Jones's approach to public policy:

  1. Agenda setting: Problems are defined and issues are raised. Gatekeepers filter out those which well be given attention by either the executive or the legislative branches.

  2. Formulation: Analysis and politics determines how the agenda item is translated into an authoritative decision: a law, rule or regulation, administrative order, or resolution. There are two steps in policy formulation:

    1. Alternative policy proposals are put forth, claiming to inject rationality and technical analysis within the process. Policy analysts bring these alternatives to the attention of political decision makers with their recommendations.

    2. The policy prescription is chosen among the alternatives, including the no-action option. This is usually accomplished by building the support of a majority. What is produced here is a binding decision or series of decisions by elected or appointed officials who are not necessarily experts but who are presumably accountable to the public.

  3. Implementation: The authorized policy must be administered and enforced by an agency of government. The agency must take instructions as stated in the policy, but will probably be called upon to provide missing pieces and to make judgments as to intent, goals, timetables, program design, and reporting methods. The agency's mission may be well defined or poorly understood, but the field of action has shifted.
  4. Budgeting: Financial resources must be brought to bear within an ongoing annual stream of budget cycles. Budget decisions are generally made with partial information and by changes from year to year which are only slightly different from the year before, a process called incrementalism. In recent years, budget constraints have significantly elevated budget considerations in importance within the policy cycle. Budget items are highly competitive but essential for policy delivery.

  5. Evaluation: The impacts of the policy may be assessed. If goals exist, the effectiveness of the policy and its components can be determined. Side-effects must also be discovered and reckoned. The output of evaluation may be no change, minor modification, overhaul, or even (but rarely) termination. The feedback provided by evaluation is injected back into the agenda-setting stage, thus closing the loop of the cycle.

The framework can comprehensively and coherently organize facts and concepts that support an understanding of public policy. A recent text in public policy supports the cycle model:

"As a methodological approach, the policy cycle deconstructs the policy process in a manner most conducive to understanding how private issues evolve into public and political concerns, how the legislative process structures political concerns into legislative concerns, how the laws are formulated and put into effect, as well as how such policies are evaluated and may eventually change or end" (Theodoulou and Kofinis 34).

But there are dangers.


The aura of the systems model contains several hazards, however. The smooth symmetry stands in contrast to the rough-and-tumble of political life. The implicit and value-laden efficiency which we could easily project on such an orderly system may bias the analyst. Is the policy making process so harmonious or so efficient? What do you think?

So, the caution of critical thinking is again advised. Do not be misled into projecting a priori an unwarranted enthusiasm for the efficacy of public policy. While the model provides a framework within which to cast the analysis of public policy, we must always maintain a skeptical and critical perspective. The Critical Realism explained earlier may balance the idealization inherent in such neat and tidy concepts as process, system, cycle, dynamics, and feedback. While the systems approach may help provide a handle to grasp public policy, we must resist any bias it engenders. It must not sanitize the reality behind the presumed orderly structure of the interactions.

The next five chapters follow the diagram of the public policy cycle. In turn, we will examine in detail agenda setting, policy formulation, implementation, budgeting, and evaluation.


Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1927.

Easton, David. "An Approach to the Analysis of Political Systems." World Politics. 9 (April. 1957). Jones, Charles 0. An Introduction to Public Policy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984.

Jones, Charles. An Introduction to the Study of Public Policy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984.

Lineberry, Robert L. American Public Policy. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Theodoulou, Stella Z, and Chris Kofinis. The Art of the Game: Understanding American Public Policy Making. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2004.

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Initialized: June 16, 2001 | Last 05/29/2014