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Understanding Public Policy

Students taking economics at higher levels of education should understand public policy and what it represents. It is one of the most important topics, as it leads one to understand why and how governments make certain policies. When there is an issue within an economy, say a high inflation rate or a depression, the government comes up with different approaches to resolve them. But that is just for fiscal and monetary policies. Public policy is wider and takes on more serious issues concerning how people generally live and interact.

The public policy becomes an academic pursuit in the early 1950s and has been expanding into different dimensions ever since. Today, the subject is attempting to acquire the status of a discipline. And since it is the study of products on governments, it is a vital organ in different social science studies, including economics and management. Public policy has received such a huge and rapid growth in the academic arena, attracting researchers, teachers, and public administrators who now feel it is becoming complex. All disciplines associated with public policy cut through traditional academic lines on demarcation. This means it is an inter-disciplinary subject that has become quite interesting and thought-provoking.

Public policy has continued to be more challenging by the day. It has achieved so much attention over the past few years, yet many still don't understand how it works. 

In the field of economic studies, the policy comes in as an instrument of direction and resolutions. It seeks to offer guidelines on what should be done when certain situations arise and how stakeholders should handle economic shocks. Therefore, it is vital to learning policy because sooner or later, you will be required to apply.  

That is why, in this unit, we shall be looking at the meaning, nature, scope, and importance of public policy. There is a significant constant change in the conceptualization of 'public' and 'private' domains in the study of policy, which should be well understood too. We also attempt to look at this subject to understand the changes and what they mean to society, both socially and economically.

What is Public Policy?

The term public policy is one of the most common terms used in our daily lives. It is also a major aspect of academic literature where we use terms such as education policy, fiscal policy, and monetary policy, among other various references in different disciplines. It is an area that involves all spheres labeled as public. The idea behind public Policy presupposes that there is an aspect of life that is common, and far from an individual or purely private.

During the initial years of public policy studies, it was only in researchers and political science students who got involved. Their focus was mainly on the institutional structure and philosophical justification of the government. In other words, they never sort to look at the policies themselves. Instead, they only focused on making the government look good. Political science was mostly preoccupied with the political activities of different political institutions. It concentrated on understanding political statuses and how they change governance. Yet, the policy is a critical component of the political process. It helps participants understand why certain directions should be taken and not anything else.

According to Thomas Dye, a renowned scholar of policy analysis, the traditional approach to a public policy defined the institution where the policy was formed. However, the relationship between crucial institutional arrangements and public policy consent was not very much explored. He continues to note that the political science of the modern era is shifting more towards public policy, which means it is now more about the description and explanation of causal and consequential activities of public policy. Economic studies have also focused more on understanding the cause for public policy and what determines which policy to be applied under certain circumstances. Modern political sciences have also focused on the organization of public authorities and public servants' behavior. This approach means determining the formulation of public policy is much harder. Even though it is largely contended that experienced policy implementation feeds back into the more in-depth application of policy-making processes, economic studies, more than political sciences, attempt to apply policy issues into the public field of administration. By seeking to understand how policies are generally made, it helps stakeholders, and the general public knows which policies are useful in resolving economic and administrative issues.

The public-policy-studies' past has mainly focused on the policy's content and the process of formulation and application. Today, this subject's study has evolved into its own discipline known as policy science, formulated by Harold Laswell in 1951. 

There are two aspects of public policy that make it a worthy subject of study.

The Public

The 'public' is the first and most important concept of public policy. You may have come across terms such as 'public interest,' 'public sector,' 'public opinion,' and many others that involve the public. They are all founded on public policy, which means the spheres involved have to do with 'public' instead of 'private.' The public sector is made up of human activities regarded as requiring government intervention or common action. Despite this clear definition, there has always been a conflict between what is regarded as 'public' and what should be seen as 'private.' W.B Baber states that there are ten main points that differentiate the public from the private sector. 

He says, public policy:

- Face more complicated and ambiguous tasks

- Faces more issues implementing its decision

- Involves more people motivated by a wider interest.

- Us concerned more with securing opportunities or implementing capacities.

- Compensates for market failure

- Engages in activities that bring out more significance

- Has strict standards of commitments and legality

- Must operate in the public interest

- Maintains a minimal level of public support.

Because of these key features, public administration emerged, coming in to secure public interest rather than private. Political economists hold that only markets can balance private and public interest, which is true. But new liberalism is founded on a belief that public administration is a more rational approach to encouraging public Policy. In this case, the civil servant is mainly tasked to serve the interests of those who elected them. This means public bureaucracy is different from anything that exists in the private domain. The issue of rational public interest became a major point of argument after World War II. Herbert Simon describes bureaucrats as exhibiting a large function of 'bounded rationality.'

The Policy

The second aspect of public policy is the idea of 'policy,' and, like the concept of 'public,' is not a very precise term. It is a denotation of guidance of action, among other elements. Therefore, a policy can take different forms, including a declaration of goals, declaration of course of action; declaration of general purpose; and an authoritative decision. Hogwood and Gunn state that there are ten applications of the term 'policy,' where it a label for a field activity, the show expected state of affairs; specified proposals; government decision; frontal authority; a program; an output, a result, a model or thought; and a process. But the policy is something that cannot be seen from a single perspective because it assumes different forms. There is a push to designate policy as 'outputs' of the political system. Hence, public policy has been defined lesser as more or less inter-dependent concerned with different activities. Public policy studies have contrastingly focused more on the examination of policy decisions concerning specific values, more than just a political analysis.

This are magnum issues that can be recognized from various definitions that have come from different scholars. Y. Dror states that policies are a general directive of the mainline of action that should be followed. Peter Self also opines that policies change directives as to how tasks should be understood and undertaken. Sir Geffrey Vickers says polices are decisions giving directions in relation and continuity to the courses of action, which the responsibility of the decision-making body. And according to James Anderson, Policy can be regarded as the "purposive action course followed by an actor or actors handling a certain issue. According to Thomas Dye, public policy is the decision of governments. All these definitions have something in common, that policy involves an action, which should be taken or followed by concerned parties.

What is the nature and scope of Public Policy?

We have already seen what public Policy and why it has become such a huge concern for modern governments. It is also good to note that policy may be general or specific, narrow or broad, simple or complex, discretionary, or detailed, among other features. In economics, public policy is more emphasized as to what the government chooses to do or not to do. In which case, it can appear into three categories:

- Activities attached to a specific policy

- Activities that are more general in nature.

- Activities based on vague and ambiguous policies.

However, it is rare to find government with a set of guiding principles for every activity in real life. This means some decisions are just made because they come as an impromptu. The Supreme Court comes in with its decisions to offer new interpretations for some constitution articles that may seem hard to comprehend.

Public policy may cover a larger part of its activities, which follow the country's development policy. For instance, the development policy can be adopted through the socio-economic development, equality, or similar broad principles of guidance for action. It can also be adopted as a basic framework of goals. As stated above, public policy may be narrow, covering specified activities, like child labor protections, or maybe as wide as women's empowerment.

In modern political systems, public policy is seen as purposive or goal-oriented statements. Also, public policy may be negative or positive. Positive public policy may some form of government intervention resolve a particular issue, like policies to shield markets from failure. On the other hand, a negative public policy could be when public servants refuse to take action on some matters the government is required to handle. Public policy is also defined by legal coercive qualities accepted by citizens as legitimate – like paying of taxes to avoid severe penalties.

The nature of public policy can be better understood when compared to related concepts, including:

- Policy-making and decision-making where policies influence decisions. However, policy-making does involve decision-making, but not every decision carries a policy.

- Policies and goals. Policies can be used as a means to end action. In other words, we can expect policies to the deliberate choice of action to attain certain goals and objectives.

- Policy analysis and policy advocacy. There is some distinction between policy analysis and policy advocacy. In this case, policy analysis is all about discovering the impact of a policy.

- Policy analysis and policy management. There is a need to understand the distinction between policy analysis and policy management. However, despite their differences, they are linked through policy-making and cover a large aspect of senior administrations.

Apart from the nature of public policy, the scope is another significant aspect of its study. It consists of the development of scenarios and extrapolations of contemporary trends concerning the public. The public sector scope and size have grown exponentially, making it important to consider how it is linked to public policy.


In trying to understand public policy, there are many other aspects of the subject you are going to cover. For instance, some scholars have tried to discuss the typologies of the policy issue. According to Lowi, for instance, policy issues can be classified as distributive; regulative; redistributive; and constituent. There are other issues you will come across, including: Regulatory Policy issues, constituent policy issues, conflict policy issues, and bargaining policy issues.

It is also vital to understand the significance of public policy. In this case, we have seen that public policy is focused on resolving public problems. It seeks to determine how issues and problems are defined, constructed, and resolved. Also, policy is purposive and deliberately formulated, it is well-thought-out, the real actionPublic Policy, it delineates a time frame and follows a defined course of action.  

Author: James Hamilton

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