Public policy refers to the government’s stance toward, and efforts to address, issues of public concern. This includes in the areas of the economy, civic society, law, education, healthcare, and so on.
Examples of public policy include housing policy, education policy, health policy, etc. So, the housing policy would describe how the government tries to provide adequate housing to citizens and tackles discriminative practices.
Public policymaking is a cyclical process, involving six stages, which we will discuss later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Public Policy
B. Guy Peters defines public policy as
“…the set of activities that governments engage in for the purpose of changing their economy and society” (2015)
Public policy decisions are primarily made by the government, although they can sometimes involve non-profit organizations and citizens (experts, stakeholders, etc.) (Brandsen, 2022). Various scholars conceive public policy in different ways.
Some see it in terms of ideas (what principles and plans are made in the interest of a society’s common good) while others see them in terms of action (what things were done and how they impacted society). A public policy usually goes through a policy cycle, which we will discuss later.
Examples of Public Policy
- Public Health Policy: The government’s health policy covers aspects such as providing healthcare access to everybody, ensuring affordability and quality, tackling emergencies, etc. Many countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have universal healthcare systems that provide essential medical services to all citizens, irrespective of their economic status, while others, such as the United States, allow for a more open market but have less fundamental protections for the poor.
- Housing Policy: Housing policy involves the government’s efforts to provide adequate and affordable housing to the people. In the United States, the housing policy emerged out of the Great Depression and is characterized by issues such as privatization, fair housing, social housing, etc. For example, the discriminatory practices of real estate owners and banks drove African Americans away from white neighborhoods into poor ghettos (Edelen, 2007). This was addressed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Today, the growing trend in housing is toward privatization, and public housing is typically populated by low-income citizens with limited education.
- Education Policy: Education policy covers all education-related issues, such as planning course syllabi, determining how schools function, choosing which values to promote, etc. The New Education Policy (2020) in India, for example, has created a new 5+3+3+4 school structure that charts how education would be divided into four major periods, which would allow a multidisciplinary approach. However, recently, the Indian government has taken many controversial steps, such as removing topics about the Mughals and Faiz’s poems. It demonstrates how political ideologies can significantly shape how our young people are taught about history and culture.
- Social Welfare Policy: Social welfare programs aim to provide some sort of assistance to those in need. These were first introduced in Germany in the 1880s, and today, it is seen as an essential responsibility of the government. Social welfare programs can be of various types, offering medical care, unemployment benefits, work-injury compensation, etc. Another common program is nutrition assistance: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the US, for example, helps low-income families to afford more healthy foods.
- Economic Policy: Economic policy includes the government’s actions to manage the overall functioning of the economy. It consists of issues such as monetary policy (how the government manages money supply and credit), fiscal policy (how the government earns and spends money), etc. Again, it is significantly impacted by the political party in power. For example, after the 2008-09 financial crisis, the Conservative Party in the UK came to power in 2010 and implemented a policy of austerity. Later, the Labour Party criticized it for harming severely public services and public education (2019).
- Environmental Policy: Environmental policy refers to the government’s efforts to deal with environmental issues, such as pollution, protection of biodiversity, etc. Many countries also adopt international treaties, such as the Paris Agreement (2015), which aims to fight climate change by limiting global warming. There have also been efforts to increase the use of renewable energy sources, such as Germany’s Energiewende (Energy Transition) which aims to move the country to a carbon- and nuclear-free energy system by 2045. Countries also protect vulnerable areas through various means; Costa Rica, for example, has paid incentives for landowners to protect natural resources.
- Family Policy: The government makes efforts to address the needs of families, which are included in the family policy. For example, Sweden has a maternity leave policy that allows both parents to take time off work so that they can care for their newborn. Some countries like Canada offer childcare subsidies, which make childcare more affordable for parents. Today, most business organizations are also creating family-friendly work cultures, letting employees work from home and on flexible schedules.
- Transportation Policy: This includes the government’s actions to manage transportation systems. It includes issues such as infrastructure development, public transportation, sustainability, etc. In India, Delhi is quite popular for its transportation initiatives, and in 2016, the city’s government introduced a unique odd-even scheme to control pollution. Vehicles with number plates ending in an odd digit are allowed on odd dates while those with an even digit on even dates. Metro trains offer a convenient city-wide mode of transportation, and bus services are completely free for women.
- Immigration Policy: Immigration policy is about how the government manages the entry and stay of foreign individuals in a country. It is shaped by labor market needs and the demographic objectives of the destination countries (United Nations). Canada is often the first country that comes to mind whenever immigration is discussed. It has an open and well-regulated immigration policy, which makes it an ideal destination for immigrants and refugees. Foreign-born people make up 1/4th of the nation’s population, and the government plans to welcome five-hundred thousand immigrants every year by 2025 (Cheatham and Roy, 2023).
- Foreign Policy: Foreign policy refers to policies governments hold about their relationships with other nations. Many nations hold foreign policies that align themselves with certain blocs, such as the EU nations which mutually agree to an open trading and (mostly freedom of movement zone. Other nations (famously, Swizerland) have explicitly neutral foreign policies with the intent of maintaining amicable relations with all.
How Public Policy is Made: The Policy Cycle
A policy cycle is a model for creating, enacting, and evaluating policies; it is usually divided into 6 parts.
The way we make policies is seen as a cycle because the outcome of the policy’s implementation helps us determine what we need to do next: make any changes to the current policy or adopt a new one altogether.
One of the most popular versions of the policy cycle was given by James E. Anderson (1974), consisting of the following stages:
- Agenda Setting: The policy cycle begins by identifying a problem and assessing its various aspects. What constitutes a problem is always debatable, and this is significantly shaped by the ruling party’s political ideologies.
- Policy Formulation: In this stage, the government evaluates the various ways of addressing the issues. It involves setting up goals, determining costs, and choosing policy instruments.
- Decision-Making/Adoption: From amongst the alternatives, the government finally decides on one path of action (or non-action). The approval of this decision often has to come from various government levels.
- Implementation: The government then puts the decision into action. This involves bringing together actors, resources, and knowledge.
- Evaluation: After putting the policy into action, the government assesses the outcome of the policy: its implementation, impact, and success.
Although Anderson discussed five stages, we often include a sixth stage:
- Policy Maintenance/Support: After evaluating the outcome of the policy, the government decides whether to continue with it with some changes or terminate it altogether.
Public policy refers to the government’s actions to address societal problems.
While public policies are primarily made and implemented by the government, there are various actors involved with them, such as pressure groups, NGOs, and experts. Policy making is a cyclical process, which determines whether the policy needs to be modified further or terminated.
Anderson, J. E. (1974). Public Policy-Making. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Brandsen, Taco; Steen, Trui; Verschuere, Bram. Co-Creation and Co-Production in Public Services: Urgent Issues in Practice and Research. Routledge.
Cheatham, A. and Roy, D. (2023). “What Is Canada’s Immigration Policy?”. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR.org).
Edelen, D. Forbes and Wright, J. (2007). “Public Housing” in (ed.) George Ritzer’s The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Peters, B. G. (2015). Advanced Introduction to Public Policy. Edward Elgar.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. “Immigration Policies” in International Migration Policies: Government Views and Priorities. United Nations.