public policy
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What is public policy?


What I propose to do in this chapter is to offer a prolegomenon to the study of public policy by seeking answers to the following questions: What is public policy? Or, what amounts to the same thing, what makes public policy? How are policy decisions made? What are the implications of policy decisions for the distribution of power in society? These questions provide a broad cover for other issues pertaining to the nature and processes of policymaking. These broad questions are central to the concern of politics within society. We shall seek to illustrate the problems of public policymaking with specific allusions to the case histories of the policy process in developing countries.

Politics and policy

The foregoing preliminary comments immediately suggest some form of relationship between politics and public policy. The concern of politics is with what David Easton (1965) refers to as “The authoritative allocation of values” elements in the linkage between politics and policy. First, is the issue of values? Values are the things that people desire and pursue with a fair amount of intensity. Values are not only many, but they vary with individuals. What is all issue here is the scarcity of resources relative to the many and varied values of individuals. Allocation, therefore, becomes an imperatives function of politics because of the obvious leg between societal resources and the many and conflicting claims that people make. It bears emphasizing that the allocation function is reserved exclusively for what is called an authority, the reason being that was allocation to be left free for all, society will, in all probability, return to the anarchy of the state of nature.

The etymology of authority should not delay us here. It is only sufficient to note that it is an authority that legitimizes the political process by which values are allocated, Significantly, authorities, properly so-called, are responsible for resolving the conflict of interests that necessarily arises out of the competing demands which people make. There is a paradoxical aspect to the political process. As authorities seek to allocate values, they make judgmental decisions that are favorable to some and unfavorable to others. The cumulative decisions which authorities make are what we generally refer to as public policies. This is another way of saying that public policy is the output of the political process of value allocation.

The linkage between politics and public policy should by now be fairly obvious. Public policy is what authorities do when they are seized with the political process of sharing societal among competing values.


What is public policy?

Human conduct is generally governed by what is sometimes loosely referred to as “policy”. In this broad sense, everyone would seem to have one policy or another regulating one’s behavior or action. Thus, it is conceivable to talk of “private” policies which help to regulate the conduct of people in their private domains. Private policies are, however, restricted in terms of scope and

Expected impact. The decision of an individual “not to eat breakfast” could be regarded as private to the extent that there are no demands made on other people to conform to such behavior by denying them the pleasure and delight of a delicious breakfast.

But what makes a policy ‘public’?  What, in other words, distinguishes public policy from, say, private policy? There are several ways of characterizing public policy. Hogwood and Gum (1984) have attempted a scheme for categorizing the variety of different ways in which the word ‘policy’ is used. Many definitions of public policy abound and it may simply be futile trying to discover which is correct or proper. However, at a broad level, public policy will refer to “the relationship of a government unit to its environment” Thomas Dye, simply defined public policy as “whatever governments choose to do or not to do” Other definitions association public policy with purposive behavior. In this regard, Public policy is viewed as “a purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors am dealing with a problem or matter of a concern”.

What makes policies distinctively ‘public’ is that they are “developed by governmental bodies and officials.” The special character of public policies stems from the fact that they are formulated by what David Easton has called the “authorities”. That is, those persons who “engage in the daily affairs of a political system”, are “recognized by the most members of the System as having responsibility for these matters” and take decisions that are “accepted as binding most of the time by most of the members so long as they act within the limits of their roles.”

Following Anderson, it is possible to isolate some key elements which distinguish public policy from other types of policies. These elements are as follows:

  1. Public policy is purposive or goal-oriented action rather than random or chance behavior.
  2. Public policy consists of courses or patterns of action by government officials
  3. Public policy is what governments actually do, not what they intend to do or say they are going to do
  4. Public policy involves some form of overt government action to affect a particular problem; it also involves a decision by government officials not to take action, to do nothing, on some matter on which governmental involvement is sought.
  5. Public policy is based on law and is authoritative. In other words, public policy has an authoritative, potentially legally coercive quality that the policies of private organizations do not have.

Understanding Government

As an activity, policymaking is located squarely within the vortex of government. But what is the government is a set of institutions making and enforcing laws. Thus we speak of institutions of government such as the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. These institutions are also assigned specific functions in furtherance of the purpose of government. These are also agencies of government such as the civil bureaucracy, the police, and prisons, etc. which perform sundry functions that are contingent on the goal of government.

But to express government merely as a set of institutions performing specified functions is simplify a complex phenomenon. A fundamental characteristic of government is that it creates and allocates values.

The point, of course, is that governmental actions which seek to create or promote certain values also involve the allocation of values among the diverse groups composing the society and generally entail the unequal (although not necessarily unjust) distribution of values. In addition, governmental actions also entail an uneven maximization pattern among values. In other words, governments discriminate as to what values to create or promote among competing values and which societal groups benefit from what values. Significantly, the creation and allocation of values through governmental action entails costs to some elements of society in that the maximization of one or a set of values invariably requires some costs in terms of minimization or deprivation of other values.

A related issue derives from the philosophical speculation concerning the end of government, Government, it is generally believed, ought to promote the public interest and all governments invariably justify their actions as being in the public interest, or public good, or some distinctly “public” aspect of human life. This concept of the public interest entails the idea that governmental actions ought to create and promote values that are for the good of the general public and that are made with the welfare of most of society in mind

Ascribing a public interest concern to governmental actions will no doubt generate much controversy. In any case, such an understanding of the purpose of government reflects poorly on the popular perception of government as the self-experience nor systematic research would seem to give much support to the postulation that government is motivated by a concern for the public good. At best, the notion of public interest could only have been a normative expectation of what ought to be the end of government.

A key attribute of government is its authority, that is, its right to make citizens. The notion that governmental actions are under guard by authority dates back to Aristotle. In Politics, Aristotle argued against those who say that all kinds of authority are identical and sought to distinguish the authority of those who occupy governmental roles from other forms of authority such as the master over the slave. Government, by this argument, functions with respect to society as a whole and its rules are legally binding on all people within the governments’ legal jurisdiction. Indeed, Aristotle defines the policy or political association as the ‘most sovereign and inclusive association’, The German scholar Max Weber has extended our understanding of the authoritative basis of governmental action by postulating that an association should be called out continually within a given territorial area by the application and threat of physical force on the part of the administrative staff.

Thus, a government policy is an authoritative plan of action for the promotion and allocation of selected values, which is deemed by a governmental authority to be in the common interest of the people. A policy consists of some general or specific goal that policymakers hope to attain including the general course of action to be followed and the specific means by which the goal is to be pursued.

The Policy Cycle

Policymaking is a complex activity involving a pattern of action, extending over time and involving many decisions. A policy is not synonymous with a single decision. As a course of action, it is useful to conceive of policymaking as a processual activity involving a series of distinct stages which constitute what we here refer to as his policy cycle.

All policies originate from or claims made upon public officials by others actors, private or official, in the political system for action or inaction on some perceived problem. A demand is a request that government should do something about a problem. Public policies are designed, almost invariably, to satisfy or meet the demands or claims made on public officials.

All policies involve decision-making by public officials that authorize or give direction and content to policy actions. Decision-making involves the choice of alternative from a series is fundamental while others are largely routine are made by officials in the day-to-day applications of public policy.

An important aspect of the policy cycle is the formal expression or articulation of public policy by public officials through statements and speeches they make indicating the intentions and goals of government and what will be done to realize them, policy statements are, of course, sometimes ambiguous. Sometimes public officials pronounce on aspects of policy as a means of ‘testing the turf’ or gauging the public mood concerning actions that government intends to initiate.

The policy cycle comes to maturity with policy outputs, that is, the ‘tangible manifestations’ of public policies, the things actually done in pursuance of policy decisions and statements. The study of public policy as policy output clearly demonstrates the wide gulf that exists between policy pronouncements and the actual acts of government.

Policy outcomes complete the policy cycle. Policy outcomes are the consequences for society, intended or unintended, that flow from action or inaction by the government. Concern with policy outcomes directs our attention to the impact of policies, namely, whether policies meet the original goals which led to their enactment.

The policy cycle corresponds to what in conventional usage is referred to as the policy process. The policy is characterized by distinct stages which include Agenda Setting, Formula Adoption, Implementation, and Evaluation. The policy agenda is the list of subjects or problems to which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time. Agenda is the number of subjects that come to their attention to the set which will actually become the focus of their attention. The policy formulation stage is the stage at which the alternatives for governmental actions are seriously considered by governmental officials. The policy adoption stage is when an authoritative choice among specified alternatives is made by policies that have been adopted by formal political office-holders. Finally, during the evaluation stage of the policy process, the concern is with the estimation, assessment, or appraisal of policy, including its content, implementation, and effects.

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