AN EXPLAINATION ON THE MEANING OF PUBLIC POLICY
Public policies in a contemporary, complex society are indeed everywhere and people are affected in one way or the other. These Public policies give advantages and disadvantages, cause pleasure, pain, and collectively have important consequences for people’s well-being and happiness as they constitute a significant portion of people’s environment. In every form of government, policies have been formulated and implemented. Public policy has to do with those spheres which are so labelled as public as opposed to spheres involving the ‘private’. The term public policy was initially used by Harold Lasswell, the American political scientist who first made the case for policy science in 1951, then in a variety of publications. He called for the development of a distinctive policy science that is concerned with the role of knowledge in and of the policy process (Lasswell, 1986). The idea of Public policies also play a key role in introducing changes to societies and in guiding individual and collective behaviour. This essay therefore will try to explain the meaning of public policy.
To start with, policy is defined as a relatively stable, purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors in dealing with a problem or matter of concern (Anderson, (2003). This definition focuses on what is actually done instead of what is only proposed or intended; differentiates a policy from a decision, which is essentially a specific choice among alternatives; and views policy as something that unfolds over time. Policies can also be thought of as the instruments through which societies control themselves and attempt to direct human behavior in acceptable directions whether in a public or private sector. A policy might be a law, or a regulation, or the set of all the laws and regulations that govern a particular issue area or problem (Birkland, T 2015). Although other scholars define policy in this way but still there is no universally accepted definition of what institutes public policy in this contemporary world. Despite the diverse insight of public policy, many scholars have attempted to describe public policy from different angles. There are as many definitions and explanations of the concept public policy depending on the context and meaning that is conveyed. Hogwood and Gunn (1984) discuss a number of common uses of the word policy: policy as a label for a field of activities; an expression of general purpose or desired state of affairs; a specific proposal; decisions of government arising from crucial moments of choice; a specific act or statute; and, outputs of the political process which is what the government actually delivers as opposed to what has promised or authorised through legislation.
As stated by (Chinsinga, 2007), Public policy refers to a ”relatively stable, purposeful course of action taken by Government or public actors in addressing a social problem”. In his writing, he highlighted some of the social problems or issues as unemployment, inflation, housing, land reforms, welfare, education, and so on. Furthermore, he explains that ‘decisions which are made by governments are implemented in the form of laws, regulations, executive orders, court decisions and even the Government budget’. On the other hand, public policy has been defined as “government’s program of action to give effect to selected normative and empirical goals in order to address perceived problems and needs in society in a specific way, and therefore achieve desired changes in that society,” Rose (1976). Public policies, nevertheless, do not constantly consist of action. Inaction can constitute policy as well–what is not done or deliberate attempt not to act (Chisinga, 2007).
Furthermore, Cochran and Malone (2014), defines Public policy as the overall framework within which government actions are undertaken to achieve public goals or the study of government decisions and actions designed to deal with a matter of public concern. Similarly, Brooks (1989), argue that Public policy can be described as the broad framework of ideas and values within which decisions are taken and action is pursued by governments in relation to some issue or problem. This shows that policies are purposive courses of action devised in reply to an apparent problem and they are filtered through a specific policy process which includes adoption, implementation, regulatory measures, courses of government action, funding priorities, and enforcement by a public agency (Cochran and Malone, 2014). These policies also provide mutual accountability links between the government and its citizens and also provide guidance to governments over a range of actions. They are mostly shaped by individuals and groups through mobilization of interest groups, advocacy education, and political lobbying.
Consequently, Friedrich (1976) defines public policy as a proposed course of action of a person, group, or government within a given environment providing opportunities and obstacles on which the policy was proposed to utilize and overcome in an effort to reach a goal or realize an objective or purpose. These policies provide guidance to governments over a range of actions and also provide mutual accountability links between the government and its citizens. They are mostly shaped by individuals and groups through mobilization of interest groups, advocacy education, and political lobbying.
Dye’s (2012) definition states ‘public policy is whatever government’s choose to do or not to do. Consequently, public policy is said to be comprehensive direction or perspective which the state places with the aim of making decisions (Dye, 2012). Every institution as well as an individual is ordered to make a choice in a policy framework which may be a short time action or not. Policy is made up of several decisions which are pursued to fulfill specific objectives. Dye, (2012) further stipulates that public policy is made up of a sequence of choices tied together into a coherent whole. Similarly Robert Lineberry (1977) says “it is what governments do and fail to do for their citizens”. In these definitions there is divergence between what governments decide to do and what they actually do.
Finally, Public policy according to Jenkins (1978), is defined as a ‘set of inter-related choices taken by the political actor or even group of actors regarding the choice of goals as well as the ways of achieving these goals in a stated situation where those choices should, in principle, be in the power of those actors’. This entails that public policies are purpose oriented because they are framed and implemented for the purpose of achieving specific goals which the government wants for the sole benefit of the general public. These policies clearly explain programmes of government. In general, public policy aims at attaining a specific objective which is taken to be most important for all members of society. For instance, government may formulate and implement policies of access to safe water and food security to its citizens
In conclusion, it is clear that public policies are state decisions, which are mainly the result of activities taken by the government in order to achieve particular objectives and goals. Such being the case, formulation as well as implementation of public policies consists of a well-planned pattern of activity in order to achieve the intended goals. Public policy provides guidance to governments and accountability links to citizens. One can understand public policies as set of accepted activities or measures, which shall, provide these societal activities, which would result in what is expected to be public interest, according to the belief of public sector.