Defining Public Policy

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TOC: Perspectives, simple and full definitions, public, issues


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 moves quickly to illustrate a variety of case studies.

Simple Definition of Public Policy ^

Let's start with a simple definition of public policy:

Public policy is a course of action adopted and pursued by a government.

As a working definition, this is adequate for common parlance. However, nuances deserve further attention, inviting a more elaborate definition. The fuller definition offered below is intended to clarify and to make explicit what will be the subject matter of this text.

Full Definition of Public Policy ^

The full, preferred definition for our purpose is:

Public policy is a purposive and consistent course of action produced as a response to a perceived problem of a constituency, formulated by a specific political process, and adopted, implemented, and enforced by a public agency.

The meaning and discussion will pull apart this definition, piece by piece, to elucidate not simply the proposed definition but the nature of public policy itself. We will plant the seeds for the public policy cycle as a method of analysis. Along the way, some related terms will be used and also defined.

Please ponder the assumptions contained in the long definition and ask yourself if you can take these assumptions at face value. We mean to make problematic the glib assumptions that many bring to public policy. Start your critical thinking with this list extracted from the long definition above:

Later, we will review different approaches to public policy. A more systematic and dynamic way of thinking will be introduced. Stay tuned.

Public and Private

What puts the public in public policy? The Latin phrase res publicum meant the public thing. The term public meant of the people, which is held dear to Americans as the first words of our Constitution, "We the People . . .". A republic is a form of government based on the principle that those holding political power are directly responsible to the citizens who have elected them. The essence of a republic is representation. The government so established was designed to rest on common consent through free elections. The framers of the Constitution rejected a pure democracy, which they viewed as impractical in a large country and subject to the excesses often associated with an unruly mob. As Madison wrote, when the framers rejected direct democracy, they put their faith in representative institutions. And the citizens put their faith in their representatives. But the citizens were one critical step removed.

Another way to capture the meaning of public is to ponder the distinction between the public and the private realm. The American philosopher and educator, John Dewey, offered this contrast between public and private:

We take then our point of departure from the objective fact that human actions in a social context have consequences upon others, that some of these consequences are perceived and that their perception leads to subsequent effort to control action so as to secure some consequences and avoid others. Following this clue, we are led to remark that the consequences are of two kinds, those which affect the persons directly engaged in a transaction and those which affect others beyond those immediately concerned. In this distinction, we find the essence of the distinction between the private and the public. (Dewey, as quoted in Jones, 39)

This phenomenon which distinguishes public from private acknowledges the very fact of interdependence. Much disagreement on the proper scope of public policy turns on this distinction. Note these perspectives:

What do you think? Reconciling these perspectives on the world determines much of your political outlook.

What makes a policy public? The standard definition is that policy is a purposive and consistent way of doing something. People, corporations, and families, for example, can have policies which are essentially private and self-contained. A parent, for example, may negotiate with a child a policy toward walking the dog. A corporation will install a travel policy for its employees. A public policy, however, is an outcome of the political process, not a strictly private matter.

Issue ^

The British use a term which can be interchanged with problem, but is more meaningful here: Before a policy is made, a public debate over an issue is held. There is the issue of, say, free trade, or same sex marriage, or responses to global warming. What such problems have in common is that they are seen as significant and controversial. Hence, consider another important definition:

An issue is a matter of public importance subject to dispute.

Note two key aspects of the term. An issue deals with something of importance, meaning that values--the relative worth or desirability assigned to something--are under discussion. Values vary among people, are often strongly held and emotionally charged, and are highly subjective. Disputes suggest that there exists conflicts which must be resolved. Both aspects of the term issue imply that public policy faces the formidable task of grappling with values which are in conflict. Sounds messy, and it is. There is much potential for disagreement here.

Our definition suggests that policy-making starts as "a response to a perceived problem of a constituency . . ." The very fact that some group brought a problem into a political arena acknowledges that a situation falls short of expectations, that a potential solution exists, and that this remedy is a legitimate activity of government. Note that by this point the presumed problem has not only taken on some form and explanation by a recognized group (perhaps, but rarely, an individual) in civil society, but has also been defined negatively, as the absence of a potential remedy enacted by a concerted governmental intervention. Most likely, a preferred policy prescription will be advocated by those who have brought their grievance to the political process in the first place.

We should note early on that the problems can probably be defined in a variety of ways and from a multitude of points of view. Further, the simple fact that someone or some group has defined a problem does not mean that it deserves or will get attention, nor does it speak to the adequacy of that definition, nor does it mean that government has the ability to neatly apply an effective and efficient remedy which is not worse than the original problem. The political response, if any, may or may not be adequate, may injure others, may waste resources, or may dampen desirable forms of behavior, but will certainly spend taxpayers' money. As deliberation progresses, the problem may be redefined, which itself will generate controversy, hence may become an issue.

A representative form of government will receive demands for action from many people and groups. Our definition is meant to convey the notion that the way a problem is defined and how its preferred policy remedy are cast should be regarded with some skepticism. The problem definition may be deficient, even self-serving. The policy prescription proposed, and perhaps all others, may fail to achieve its intended purpose, may prove costly, or may discourage other action deemed desirable. The remedy might be worse than the problem, if a real problem exists at all.

The claim that a problem exists and that government should do something about it should be subject to robust critical, and thorough examination. This is why the study of public policy is intellectually and ethically demanding. Conversely, a possible failure of public policy is that the political process charged with policy-making may lack either intellectual rigor or ethical integrity, or both. What do you think?

Public policy is determined by specific organs of government through established, often complex and cumbersome, procedures. The process takes place in some arena, some public place. The original arena was the oval space in the center of the Roman amphitheater in which combat or other public performance was carried out. In our language, an arena is a field of conflict or competition. In the American system, the arena for policy-making is generally the Congress, the bicameral legislative branch.

So, some formal body has deliberated upon a matter of public importance under dispute, arrived at a stated position, and is poised for some follow-up action. That is, after open discussion, informed debate, and due deliberation, the political process has adopted an official declaration of intent, a policy statement. The policy-as-stated appears not as mere words in a memorandum, but generally in an authoritative and legally binding document. Usually, a policy statement involves legislation, executive order, or administrative rule-making, all of which becomes legally binding.

However, to be consistent with the realist position adopted here, more is needed to become public policy: The policy-as-stated must be actually carried out. Thus, the phrase in our definition, adopted, implemented, and enforced by a governmental body, is meant to emphasize that the policy-as-stated must be put into practice in a manner consistent with the stated intentions. Implementation has been sorely neglected in the past. We must also allow the possibility of a dis-juncture between a policy statement and an actual policy. That is, what is declared may not be done and what might be done may not be what was declared.

The Public Policy Cycle Web Site | Page: © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | ™ ProfWork |
Initialized: June 16, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014