WHAT IS PUBLIC POLICY ‘Public policy’ is one of the most highly contested fields of study in this modern world of public policy studies


‘Public policy’ is one of the most highly contested fields of study in this modern world of public policy studies. This is because of the diverse definitions connected to public policy. Presently, there is no commonly accepted definition of what public policy is. Starling and Grover (2008) view a policy as “a program of actions adopted by a person, group, government, or the set of principles on which they are based’. Due to diversity of the definitions, a lot more scholars have different views on public policy making process. Regardless of the existence of diverse perceptions, Makinde (2005) defines public policy making process as “a political problem resolving action in time of difficulty rather than a logical process involving well-informed calculations by rational actors who seek to maximize economic effectiveness, political power, or organizational success”. For a clearly understanding of the concept public policy, this paper will analyze public policy in the context of; various definitions of public policy, public policy goals, rationale for public policy, types of public policy, policy cycle and stakeholders in the public policy process.

The word policy may be used in diverse ways, for instance, Hogwood (1984) defines policy as “a label for a field of activity which entails a series of administrative activities and involvement in problem solving process”. However this policy approach fails to make a distinction between policy as aspiration and policy as achievement and at the same time it also lacks in differentiating policy as action and policy as inaction. The word policy may also be used to mean several other concepts in the academic world such as; specific proposals, decisions of government, formal authorization, government programs, output from government actions, achievements or outcome of government projects, theory of models and policy may also mean a process unfolding over time thus according to Hogwood and Gunn (1984).

In trying to understand the concept of public policy, it is of great importance to make a clear distinction between policy and goals. Anderson and James (1975) articulate “goals as what policies intend to achieve at the end of a particular process which therefore entails that a goal is a desired state of affairs that the public or an organisation strives to achieve”. Goals can best be understood in a variety of perspectives. These can be thought of as abstract standards that a society would like to attain. Other goals are specific and concrete as described by Anderson and James (1975). For instance, poverty eradication is a goal that the executive may wish to pursue in its undertakings. Therefore public policies are concerned with articulating as to how the defined goals may be attained within a complex political and economic environment. They are a vehicle to achievement of the set objectives in the effort of addressing public problems.

It is also important to draw a clear distinction between a policy and decisions in the quest of trying to understand public policy. Often times the terms are used interchangeably which is wrong. Individuals, organisations or government are time and again involved in decision making processes. Saigal (1983), defines a decision “as the act of making a choice”. However, not all decisions that are made can be defined or qualify as matters of policy. The focal point of decision-making process is to make a choice from the available options at hand so as to trigger action, where there is only a singular course of action available, it therefore entails that no decision can be made since there are no other options to choose from. Public policy is the comprehensive direction or view that the government put in place in order to take decisions. Every organisation or the individual is restricted to take a decision within a policy context. Decision can be a onetime action, while as policy is made up of several decisions that are taken to accomplish its objectives. A policy consists of a series of decisions tied together into a coherent whole.

Public policy has several characteristics which can best help in bringing out a better understanding of the concept, as such it is worth to note that Public Policy has been defined by Dye (2011) “as a very complex process since it involves various interconnected components that are supported by enormous communication and feedback loops Some parts of the process are explicit and directly observable, but many others proceed through hidden channels that the officials themselves are often partly aware of”. These hidden procedures are very difficult, and often impossible to observe. Thus, guidelines are often formed by a series of single decisions that result in a ‘policy’ without any one of the decision makers being aware of that process.

Secondly, it is also important to recognise that policy making takes place in a very dynamic environment, which therefore entails that it requires proper sustainability of resources and motivation and therefore the process keeps on changing with time. According to Cloete, de Coning and Wissink (2006) states that Policy making also “involves various components which includes substructures and therefore knowing and understanding the contributions that comes with these substructures brings greater benefits to the process”. Lastly, policy making also involves decision making and lays down major guidelines rather than detailed instructions and often times most policies are formulated by governmental organs.

Public policy is of varying types and these includes; substantive, regulatory, distributive, redistributive and capitalisation. According to O’Toole (1986) he states that “substantive policies refers to those public policy guidelines that mainly focuses on addressing welfare and development of the society and it includes programs such as provision of education, creating employment opportunities, economic stabilisation and enforcement of law and order”. Its formulation takes into account socio economic problems and the level of moral claims of the society. Regulatory policies mainly focuses on regulating commerce and industry and public utilities, it is often formulated and enforced by independent organisations on behalf of the government thus according to O’Toole, L.J., (1986). While as, distributive policies are targeted towards a particular segment of the society. They are often aimed at addressing problems in sectors such as; adult education, food relief and public welfare. Redistributive policies are aligned towards rearranging policies which are targeted at fostering social and economic changes in the society. It works towards addressing problems where other basic necessities in the society are disproportionately distributed in some segments of the society and these may include things such as public goods and welfare services and finally is capitalisation policies, which aims at provision of financial subsidies which are provided for by the executive to other state business undertakings or other important sectors defined important by the state. According to Parsons and Wayne (2005) he states that capitalisation policies are different from the aforementioned policies in the sense that it doesn’t focus on addressing public welfare.

Public policy process has stages which are very crucial in the realization of the intended purpose of the policy. These stages include policy design, formulation, implementation, policy monitoring and evaluation. Any mishap in one of the stages would translate to a rather blue print policy to remain a theory thus according to Sapru R.K, (2010). It is from this background that scholars and experts in the field of public policy argue that policy design is hard than policy formulation let alone policy implementation. Generation of policy documents passes through a well-defined process which starts with policy formulation. This stage involves transformation of system demands into policy. However the crucial part of this stage is coming up with a clear definition of what public demands need to be transformed into policies. Thereafter the policy is interpreted so as to be well understood by the majority through policy education. After policy formulation then follows policy implementation which entails a systematic putting into action of the policy by concerned government agencies. According to Anderson, J. E (2003) he state that “it is so important to monitor how the policy performs on the ground and make necessary adjustments so as to prevent a waste in resources and hence remain within budget and ensure a positive impact of the policy on the society”. Then lastly comes policy monitoring and evaluation process which aims at assessing if the policy has managed to achieve the desired impact on the society or not.

In conclusion, it is worth to note that public policy is a purposive series of activities that the executive chooses to pursue in effort to deliver societal needs in a given time frame. This follows a well-defined course of action which starts from policy designing, formulation, implementation then monitoring and evaluation. Public policy process in its real form is a complex collection of actors and interactions inside and around it. The process as a policy framework has very important advantages. Firstly, it suggests that the public policy is dynamic. Secondly, such a framework is flexible, in the sense that the actors and actions keep on changing over time influenced by several environmental factors. Thirdly, it is an important tool for analyzing the interactive nature of policy activities and options. The policy making process involves many sub-processes which extends over time. The goals and purposes of a policy are usually well-defined at the beginning of the policy process, but these may change overtime and, in some cases, may be defined only retrospectively. The outputs and outcomes of policies do not necessarily represent the end of the policy process; on the contrary they may give good reason for the protraction of the policy process.