Public policy is a broad term that encompasses government laws, regulations and decisions that affect every person in a community or nation. It can also refer to policies created by private organizations and businesses. Ultimately, it is the study of what governments do and do not do to improve their societies.
The process of creating and carrying out policy varies from region to region, community to community, or even country to country. This is because different entities have different roles, interests and resources. However, a good starting point for understanding policy is the notion that it is comprised of two parts: the policy goal and the policy instrument to achieve it.
Policy goals are often articulated in terms of what society should be like or the outcomes that it should produce, whereas the policies themselves are defined by the means by which the desired outcome is to be achieved. Achieving a policy objective can require a great deal of time and effort. This is particularly true when a policy is trying to achieve something that is not already being addressed by existing policy instruments, such as legislation or regulation.
Once a policy goal is identified, the next step is to determine the appropriate course of action that should be taken to implement it. During this stage, it is important to identify the underlying assumptions and values that are being reflected in the search for a solution. It is also essential to understand how the policy goal is being framed and how it will be evaluated.
A variety of courses of action may be considered in this phase, with each being weighed against the resources and time needed to execute it. Some of the considerations include cost and effectiveness, but other factors such as sponsorship, political expediency and a policy’s intended impact are also important. Often, the choice of policy instrument will depend on a particular group’s agenda and preferences. This could be a legislative body, an executive branch of government, an agency, interest groups, think tanks or other academic institutions.
Once a course of action has been chosen, it must be approved and legitimized by official policy actors. This usually involves gaining support from a coalition of stakeholders that includes both advocates and opponents of the policy. This process can be lengthy, especially if the policy is controversial or requires significant resource commitments.
The growing prominence of networks in public policy making has challenged the ability of official policymakers to control the actions of their counterparts within policy networks. This is especially the case when a network’s members have competing priorities and interests. A number of social scientists, notably institutionalists, have sought to improve the state’s capacity to manage policy networks through various means, including the use of deliberation and other techniques that promote incremental shifts in the culture of policy networks. Other scholars have promoted alternative approaches that attempt to give citizens greater control over policy-making. These models tend to emphasize civic participation and the use of public goods.