How to understand public policy?
The study of public policy is commonly regarded a significant aspect of political discipline, (McConnell & Hart 2014). Politics is a process through which the public assist to figure out how to organize as well as control or govern themselves, (Cairney, 2012). Dye (2012) argues that public policy is political because it is located in public sphere, where decisions are made by the public to deal with issues that affect people in communities. The public domain can be an apartment complex, small village, a whole nation, or even the world, (Birkland, 2015). Policy refers to people outlining their socially accepted norms and practices to guarantee some form of predictability in the allocation of scarce resources where all the people can contribute towards a social effect, (Pal & Leslie, 2005). Furthermore a policy mostly comes in the form of general statements about priorities, written regulations, or guidelines, procedures and or standards to be achieved, (Pal & Leslie, 2005).
This paper explores some concepts of public policy, the policy cycle as well as its advantage and disadvantage.
2.0 Definition of Public Policy
There is no single universally accepted definition of Public policy because of its complexity and diversity, (Cochran & Malone, 2014). It is complex because it is understood and defined in different ways, (Anderson, 2005). Again public policy is a diversity because it involves many different types of people or groups having various interests such as government, civil society organizations, and the citizenry as well as Non-Governmental Organizations, (Birkland, 2015).
Lowi and Ginsburg (1996), define public policy as “an officially expressed intention backed by a sanction, which can be a reward or a punishment.” Public Policy is also defined as Action and Inaction, (McConnell & Hart 2014). This public policy may take the form of a law, a rule, a statute, an edict, a regulation or an order, (Lowi & Ginsburg 1996). Policy inaction is defined by McConnell & Hart (2014) as “government’s incapacity and/or unwillingness, whether explicit and observable or perceived to actively intervene in addressing a particular policy problem within its jurisdiction”. Sometimes undertaking nothing can mean doing something in the sense that inactivity can be purposeful, (Abbott 2014). For instance, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott clearly declined to provide a debt guarantee for the iconic, monetarily troubled airline Qantas, on the grounds that it is best placed to compete and to flourish if it is unshackled and uncropped up by government, (Abbott 2014). Again policy inaction may be regarded as a much ambiguous phenomenon which hinges on differing perceptions, (McConnell & Hart 2014). For example in case of humanitarian crisis across the borders, media and political opponents may blame government of undertaking nothing to resolve the crisis and yet the government may say it is doing everything it credibly can. Inaction is also the subject game theoretic analysis (McCain, 2009) as well as cost benefit analysis (Weimer, 2008) aimed at studying decision making behaviour in the context of the potential benefits, risks of different forms of action and or inaction.
Public policy is also defined as the study of government decisions and actions designed to deal with a matter of public concern, (Cochran & Malone, 2014). This originates from organization theory and public administration, (Fischer et al 2007). As per rational model, any decision making has to be based on a full analysis of problems and objectives, followed by a comprehensive collection and analysis of information as well as hunt for the best alternative to achieve the goals, (Simon 1947). Decision making is clouded by values, or interests and needs large amount of money, making the policy process very complex, (McConnell, 2010).
Rose (1976) defines public policy 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”. A good example is health policy in Malawi where the government provides free ARVs to HIV/AIDS patients in order to reduce the death of people caused by the pandemic.
Public Policy as Output. This originates from an institutional model with emphasis on policy as the output of government which is the final decision making authority, (Cochran & Malone, 2014). Output refers to what government actually delivers different from what it has promised or has authorized through legislation, (Hogwood & Gunn). For example the Malawi government promised people in 2014 that it would construct Mombera University in Mzimba District within 5 years but up to date the university has not been built. Sometimes it is difficult to decide what the final ‘output’ of government policy is in a particular area.
3.0 Public Policy Cycle
Public policies are sieved through a particular policy process, adopted, implemented through laws, controlling measures, courses of government action, funding priorities, as well as enforced by a public agency, (Cochran & Malone, 2014). The first policy cycle was introduced by Harold Lasswell in 1956 and had seven stages intelligence, promotion, prescription, invocation, application, termination, and appraisal, (Fischer, 2007). The modern policy cycle comprises of agenda setting, policy formulation, decision making, implementation, and evaluation leading to termination, (Brewer & deleon 1983).
4.0 Advantages and disadvantages of Public Policy
Public policies are mechanisms of conflict management binding and balancing rival values as well as interests within a nation, (Zhou & Hardlife, 2012). For example in Malawi, security policy is for protection of life and property and health policy is to deal with health problems like an outbreak of diseases. They also help in achieving different goals in relation to the growth and development of a nation and its citizens, (Cochran & Malone, 2014). On the other hand public policies may have negative effects for instance free primary and secondary education may lower the standards of education. Another example is that in capitalist states where there is free markets economies, can lead to the suffering of citizens due to high uncontrolled prices of goods.
Public policy is complex and diverse in nature hence there is no single universal agreed definition. Some scholars have defined Public policy as decisions by government, as action and inaction, and policy as an output. The lifecycle of public policy include problem definition, agenda setting, policy formulation, policy implementation and impact assessment. Public policies are important because they help in conflict management, binding and balancing rival values and interest and also they assist in achieving various goals for the growth and development of a nation and its citizens. On the other hand some policies may infringe the rights of minority groups. Some which are solely initiated by political elites may not be useful to the community but serve the elites interests.
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