Public Policy is one of the broadest and most commonly used concepts in politics and in the academic circles
Public Policy is one of the broadest and most commonly used concepts in politics and in the academic circles. Its application in different contexts, always, brings about confusion to many people. For this reason, there is no any consensus in most discussions on the definition of the term. The most difficult confusion in defining public policy arises from the failure of many people to distinguish between public policy as being affairs of the state and policy in terms of a course of action carried out by private actors. This paper argues that the meaning of the term, ‘public Policy’ cannot be explained from a single perspective or dimension. Therefore, the paper seeks to generate different understandings and explanations for the meaning of the term from a number of scholars.
To begin with, the meaning of Public Policy cannot be understood without firstly understanding the meaning of the word, ‘Policy’ and Public Policy itself. In trying to define a Policy, Anderson (1975) has suggested that a policy is a “purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors”. Apart from that, a different definition can be borrowed from Ripley & Franklin cited in Cahn (2012:30) who has defined policy as ‘what the government says and does about perceived problems.’ This definition, though, restricts the meaning of policy only to those actions carried out by the government, a policy can be public or private.
Public policy, on the other hand as adopted from Dye (1976:1) cited in Brauns (2014) means, answer to the question what the government does, why it does exactly what it does and what consequences this brings. A similar definition can be borrowed from Hayes, (2001) which stresses that, Public policy is a purposive and consistent course of action produced as a response to a perceived problem of a constituency, formulated by a specific political process, and adopted, implemented, and enforced by a public agency. Cochran and Malone, (2014) defines Public policy as the overall framework within which government actions are undertaken to achieve public goals, This is similar to what Charles has advance where Public policy is a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives (Serban, M, 2015)
From the above definitions, public policy can firstly, be characterized as something that involves behavior and intentions. Lasswell and Kaplan (1970:177) views public policy as “a projected programme of goals, values and practices. In simple terms, public policies are not just only whatever behaviors the government pursue but rather a behavior coupled with the goals to address important social issues. Hogwood and Gunn, (1984:14-15) have attributed public policy to as desired state-of-the-art in certain area or expressed desire of the government to follow certain way of development in specific area. This notion is inclined on the idea that public policies are goal oriented with the desire being the intention s Public policies are made and implemented in order to achieve the objectives which the government has in view for the ultimate benefit of the masses in general. These policies clearly spell out the programmes of government.
Furthermore, Public policy, as seen in the most definitions above, is also characterized by being less readily distinguishable from ‘administration. It is arguably true that Public policy is what the government actually decides or chooses to do. It represents the relationship of the government units to the specific field of political environment in a given administrative system. Hogwood and Gunn (1984:15) has noted that that public policy is in fact always more than just simple act of governing institution’s decisions. After public policy is formally adopted or confirmed, gives legal power to competent institutions to implement certain activities. Public policy can take a variety of forms like law, ordinances, court decisions, executive orders, decisions, just to mention a few which is not only carried out only at individual level but rather different units in the government which act as the administration for the policy.
Apart from that, Public Policy can also be seen to be separate from a mare decision. Policy is more than decision. Public policy is positive in the sense that it depicts the concern of the government ‘and involves its action to a particular problem on which the policy is made. It has the sanction of law and authority behind it. Negatively, it involves a decisions by the governmental officials regarding not taking any action on a particular issue. Hogwood and Gunn (1984:15) has noted that that public policy is in fact always more than just simple act of governing institution’s decisions. After public policy is formally adopted / confirmed, gives legal power to competent institutions to implement certain activities.
Another way to extract the meaning of Public Policy from the above mentioned definitions is to understand that policy involves inaction as well as action. Just as seen in Dye (1992, p. 4), public policy simply involves what governments choose to do or not to do. By what governments choose to do or not to do, Dye’s view of a public policy rests on the actions and inactions taken by the government. This view is similar to what Birkland (2001: ch 1) has pointed out when he stresses that, the ‘actions’ in this case are government decisions to act, or not to act, to change or maintain some aspect of the status quo. Public policies, in this case, focuses on what Easton (1953, p. 129) has been attributed to as “the authoritative allocation of values for the whole society. That’s why Lineberry (1977, p. 2), stresses that public policy “is what governments do and fail to do – to and for their citizens.”
Finally, even though, the definitions above seem to focus on the direct actions and intentions of the government in dealing with public issues, the fact that Public policies have outcomes which may or may not have been foreseen cannot be negated. Public policy is a product of government’s shared actions which at times give rise to outcomes which are intended or at times not intended. For instance, Malawi’s HIV and AIDS policy whose major outcome is to reduce cases of HIV and AIDS diseases among Malawians may at the same time has unforeseen outcomes like releasing pressure from the public health services. This can also be the same with some economic policies which are intended on improving living standards of Malawian like the policies that brought about projects like Kauniuni project. While this Project seeks to search for minerals which are considered as one of the driving forces to economy of the country, at the same time the outcome that may rise from mining can be devastating. Another typical example can be of Kaerekera mining which is a product of Malawi’s economic policies. This mining project despite claimed to have a contribution to the economy of the country, has at the same time brought in negative impact like radiation to the surrounding community. The implication of these examples is that, every public policy has end products which may be the positive or negative of its main objective.
In a nutshell, as discussed, it is clear that public policies are governmental decisions, and are actually the result of activities which the government undertakes in pursuance of certain goals and objectives. It has also been seen that the term ‘public policy’ cannot be only understood from a single point of view but rather a multiple perspectives. It has also been seen that public policies really have got great impacts in shaping lives of the general public ranging from improving the food, water and air they consume to their security.