INTRODUCTION TO PUBLIC POLICY AND POLICY ACTORS

 LESSON 1: INTRODUCTION TO PUBLIC POLICY AND POLICY ACTORS

Introduction

Topics to be covered include:

  • What is public policy?
  • Policymaking and political culture
  • Policy analysis
  • Official policymakers
  • The role of policy actors
  • Citizens in public policy
  • Interest groups
  • Issue networks
  • Conditions affecting policymaking
  • Public opinion in policymaking
  • Influence of the media and Internet on policymaking
  • Models of public policymaking
  • Elected officials and citizens

Welcome to PADM 530, Public Policy. This course will provide an introduction to the policymaking and analysis processes. It will examine how choices are made among competing policies, factors affecting the actual implementation of policy and the role of policy evaluation in shaping and reshaping policy choices. In this course, you will study the way government policies emerge from the political process and are implemented through participating institutions. You will investigate how good analysis can contribute to informed policymaking and review the factors involved in developing effective implementation strategies.

What Is Public Policy?

Public policy includes the specific actions government takes to rectify a public situation, to establish goals and develop methods to accomplish them, to set guidelines and best practices, and to communicate agency expectations and standards. It might be broadly said that public policy is simply what a public official who influences or determines public policy does or does not do about a problem that comes before them to be considered and acted upon.  

There are many issues in the United States’ communities that remain unsolved, some of which can be dealt with in the private sphere (requiring only the actions of individuals or families). The larger, civil society (which includes social, economic, or political associations or organizations) is required to handle others. Public policy problems are those that must be addressed by the government (federal, state or local) through laws and regulations. Hundreds of millions of people can be impacted by a single public policy. Therefore, it cannot be considered or planned in haste. In some cases and for different reasons, a public policy must be replaced.

Public policy as a whole is difficult to define, as it is a very broad term. Most can agree that public policy:

  • is made in response to an issue or problem that requires attention, representing what the government chooses to do or not do about that issue or problem.
  • might take the form of law, regulation, or set of laws and regulations governing a particular issue or problem.
  • is made on behalf of the “public,” which includes all Americans.
  • is oriented toward a specific goal or state, such as solving a problem or issue.
  • is ultimately made by governments, though the ideas for the policy can come from many different sources outside of the government.
  • is part of an ongoing process that has no beginning or end, since it is continually being reassessed, revisited, and revised.

For each policy action, there are one or more contexts at play for its creation, modification, or rejection. There are five public policy contexts that affect public policy: social, economic, political, governmental and cultural.  

Policymaking and Political Culture

The political culture of the United States places a great value on individual freedom, equality, progress, efficiency, and practicality. The economy is practically and pragmatically regulated under this form of democracy, and present problems are dealt with before long-term plans are made. This is also a diverse nation with diverse values, and these differences in values lead to different public policies. For example, debates have been sparked over whether private or national health care systems are the best model for the nation, or if economic competition is preferable to enterprises being state-owned. A number of different political cultures have arisen as a result of these differences, including:  

INDIVIDUALISTIC CULTURE

The individualistic culture, which focuses on private concerns. In this culture, government is a utilitarian device, and policy issues are of minimal concern.

MORALISTIC CULTURE

The moralistic culture, which focuses on government as a public service and as a mechanism for advancing the public interest. In this culture, government intervention in the economy is permissible, but only for the public good. Policy issues are a major concern.

TRADITIONALIST CULTURE

The traditionalist culture, which fosters a paternalistic and elitist view of government used to maintain the existing social order. In this culture, only a small percentage of the population has any policymaking power, with most citizens inactive in politics and unconcerned with policy issues.

Policy Analysis

It is clear that a variety of contexts can drive policy development, implementation, and change. But how do we trust the underlying contexts? Whether acting as a citizen, government official, part of the administration, advocate, or one of a host of other individuals and groups connected to the policy system, it is imperative that the policy be analyzed.

Solid policy analysis requires systematic, thoughtful, and impartial assessment of the problems and/or solutions being identified by the policy and a consideration of its outcomes, alternatives, and impact. This process takes into account effectiveness, efficiency, equity, ethics, technical feasibility, political feasibility, and institutional capacity.

FRAMEWORK FOR POLICY ANALYSIS

One of the most accepted models for policy analysis is that set forth by Carl V. Patton and David S. Sawicki, which has the following six steps (Patton and Sawicki 1986, p.26):

  1. Verify, define and detail the problem. Determine what the problem is exactly, and whether that problem can be solved on a lower level or if public policy is necessary.
  2. Establish evaluation criteria. This step allows other evaluation criteria to be considered in addition to cost; other valued criteria may include effectiveness, political acceptability, or votes and equity.
  3. Identify alternative policies. Once the goals are known and evaluation criteria specified, it should be possible to develop a set of alternative ways of getting to known goals.
  4. Evaluate these alternatives. Once alternative policies have been identified, they can be evaluated by deciding the particular points in favor or against each one.
  5. Select an alternative policy. The results of the evaluation may be presented as a list of alternatives or as a preferred alternative. Implementation of the choice occurs at this step as well.
  6. Monitor policy outcomes. Monitoring or evaluation of progress should be fundamental to every public policy. According to the nature of public policy, the original problem can be expected to evolve into others.

THREE APPROACHES TO POLICY ANALYSIS

While a complex field, there are three basic approaches one can take to policy analysis:

  • The empirical approach is mainly concerned with facts and with information that is descriptive and predictive. It asks the primary question, “Does it and will it exist?” This approach is concerned with the causes and effects of public policies.
  • The valuative approach is mainly concerned with values. It asks the question, “Of what worth is it?” This approach is concerned with determining the value or worth of public policy. For example, an analyst may choose this approach to describe, explain, or predict what public expenditures will be for health, education, or highway construction.
  • The normative-value critical approach is mainly concerned with action and with prescriptive information. It asks the primary question, “What should be done?” This approach is concerned with the causes and effects of public policies. This approach is concerned with recommendations for future courses of action to resolve public problems. For example, if extreme poverty is an issue, an analyst using this approach may recommend that guaranteed minimum incomes be issued.

Official Policymakers

Many persons and groups share power over policy, but the ones that come to mind for many are the official policymakers, which include elected and appointed government officials. A system of checks and balances distributes the authority to make policy in order to prevent abuse of power and guarantee individual liberties, and ideally, to avoid inefficiency, duplication, and unnecessary expense.

The balance of power between the federal government and state governments has shifted over time. Today, national defense, transportation, interstate commerce, are generally the domain of the federal government, while the states traditionally dominate the areas of law enforcement, property rights, public education, land use regulation, highway construction, occupational licensing, and public sanitation.

The officials charged with official policymaking include:

THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

The U.S. President, state Governors, and city Mayors are expected to develop comprehensive plans for policy.

THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

The U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and city councils are the major bodies charged with adopting public policy after careful debate and consideration of issues.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

The courts establish or overturn public policy through judicial review and statutory interpretation, determine the constitutionality of policy actions taken by the legislative and executive branches, and help shape policy through its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and by deciding what the intent of policy is. According to the United States’ common law tradition, judicial decisions have the effect of law, which increases the tendency to make legal matters from political issues.

ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCIES

Most of these agencies are highly technical and possess a complex knowledge of policy. They have rule-making power, can propose public policy, and have latitude in the implementation of public policy.

The Role of Policy Actors

The three branches of government are integral in the policy process, but also important to this process are informal policy actors. Whether it is as an institutionalized part of government, a smaller group, or an individual, we each have a role in the development, implementation, and evaluation of policy. To be an effective part of this process, we need to understand how to analyze policy, which is why a look at the theoretical underpinnings of the policy process is imperative.

Among the policy actors that may influence public policy are as follows:

Interest groups

These groups may express demands, articulate interests, and present alternatives for public policy. Members of these groups often have leadership, political skills, and social status, and interest groups are likely to flourish where political parties are weak. Interest groups with conflicting aims may compete for different decision sites, where official policymakers are more favorable to their cause.

Political parties

A political party’s first concern is maintaining power and controlling government; public policy is a secondary concern. Traditionally, political parties in the United States are not policy-oriented. Generally speaking, parties in two-party political systems promote policy that is broad and sometimes vague, while those in multi-party systems promote more specific and narrow policy.

Research institutes

An established, nationally recognized research institute can greatly influence public policy through knowledge, information, expertise, status, and access to official policymakers. Such an institute usually has a full-time, highly educated analytical staff that often includes several former government officials. These institutes generally promote policy agendas and alternatives that are more ideological.

Media

The media can greatly influence policy through the manner in which it reports public attitudes and opinions. Policymakers may also use the media to shape the public’s opinions and attitudes towards policy issues.

Citizens

Every U.S. citizen over a certain age has the right to participate in politics through means such as referendums, petitions, elections, recalls, and individual and group activities. They have the opportunities to influence policymakers through personal contact and other citizens through personal initiatives, campaigns, books, and other means.

Citizens in Public Policy

Public involvement, an American tradition since colonial times, is meant to give citizens a direct voice in public policy decisions. Many agencies or individuals claim that citizen participation is too expensive and time consuming, and accordingly do not make it a priority in public policymaking. But citizen participation programs are often initiated in response to proposed projects or actions that prompt reactions from the public.

There are several commonly accepted principles that can be applied in the development and implementation of such programs. Public participation is a requirement for stakeholders and planners in these programs, but it is always optional for citizens. Citizens expect a positive experience and to stir a degree of influence when they choose to participate in the policymaking process. Well-planned citizen involvement programs relate the expectations of both the citizens and the stakeholder. In successful programs, the planners and citizens have similar expectations; conflict may occur otherwise that can damage the planning process and the relationships involved in it.

Interest Groups

While citizens can exert considerable influence on their own, people with the same concerns can do more so by working together. Interest groups attempt to influence policy in the following ways:

LOBBYING GOVERNMENT

They may hire representatives to advocate on behalf of their interests, which may involve contacting members of Congress and the executive branch to present information to them about positive or negative effects of proposed legislation.

ENGAGING IN ELECTION ACTIVITIES

They may try to influence elections to help elect or reelect candidates who support their issues, which may include donating money to candidates, endorsing candidates, and conducting grassroots activities such as campaigns to register voters.

EDUCATING THE PUBLIC

They work hard to educate the public at large, government officials, their own members, and people who may be interested in joining their group.

MOBILIZING THE PUBLIC

They often rely on the efforts of volunteers, who are motivated to act on behalf of their issues and causes by writing letters, making phone calls, contacting policymakers, and demonstrating.

Many interest groups are focused on advancing the economic interests of their members, which may constitute a very large base or only a few. Trade associations, for example, often take a stand on public policy matters. Citizen action groups, another type of interest group, may be concerned with issues that affect the public at large or those that impact smaller groups disproportionately. Examples of larger and more prominent citizen action groups include National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).

Issue Networks

  • DEFINING ISSUE NETWORKS

One fast-growing segment of informal policy actors is issue networks. Corporations belonging to these networks may maintain offices in Washington, D.C. or in the capitals of states where they conduct business so that they may easily access government resources. Universities and state and local governments may also belong to these networks, and they may hire their own lobbyists or outside consultants to track and influence legislation.

  • AD HOC ASSOCIATIONS

These networks do not have to be large-scale and permanent. Citizens may organize themselves into ad hoc associations to influence public policy decisions that affect only a small number of people within their own community, such as neighborhood beautification or school reform. These networks are usually disbanded after they accomplish their goals and have far fewer financial resources and staff than a large issue network would possess. They depend on membership mobilization through letters, phone calls, personal contacts, and demonstrations, and their greatest strengths are found in their membership and unity.

  • IRON TRIANGLE

Many interest groups hire former Congress members, cabinet officials, military officers, and other government officials as lobbyists since they already have considerable knowledge and influence in the spheres where they work. While members of an iron triangle are expected to fight on behalf of their interests, constituents, or governmental department, they often seek policy outcomes that produce benefits for all members of the “triangle.”

Conditions Affecting Policymaking

Many parties are involved in the making of public policy, including businesses, groups, and individuals. These parties compete and work together to influence policymakers to act in a particular way concerning policies that are of interest to them, using a number of tactics to advance their interests. Perfect policies rarely emerge from the political process, and policy outcomes are usually the result of compromises between parties.

Businesses usually consider what is in their best interest when they decide which position on a policy issue to support. Will this policy help the business achieve its greatest possible profits? Is the policy politically feasible? How many other people will support it? Will it achieve the desired outcome in a cost efficient manner? For example, an automobile manufacturer may have the choice of supporting or opposing a proposed policy to completely eliminate carbon emissions. The benefits to the environment and to public health would be great. However, it would involve an extremely high economic cost for the manufacturer. But if another proposed policy calls for a gradual reduction in carbon emissions from automobiles, the company would have far more ease in shouldering its expense.

Public opinion, economic conditions, new scientific discoveries, technological change, interest groups, business lobbying, and other political activity all influence public policy. As many influencing factors pull and push policy in different directions, change in public policy often happens slowly.

Public Opinion in Policymaking

Many correlations have been observed between public opinion on multiple issues and policy indicators that relate to those issues, including congressional speeches, legislative votes, or policies enacted across time. For instance, analysts have used public opinion poll responses to explore the impact of public opinion on policy measures and legislative outcomes. Some have found that the relationship between public opinion and public policy has become weaker with time, while others insist that a much stronger relationship exists. Whatever the case, no identifiable trends have been observed regarding the types of policies (for example, social, national security, international relations) that are particularly likely to reflect public opinion.

Generally, what has been observed is that the average citizen does not have the time, motivation, or capacity to make an informed opinion about the multiple policy issues lawmakers continuously introduce and vote on. Consequently, public opinion typically only impacts policymaking where public attention to an issue is especially high. With thousands of bills and resolutions being considered by the U.S. Congress in a typical session, it is highly unlikely that the average citizen has formed opinions on more than a handful of them.

To what extent can policymakers influence public opinion? Some policy analysts have suggested that policymakers can do so easily through press releases, the media, or other campaign activities. It is difficult to determine whether public opinion has had the greatest impact on policymaking or if the reverse is true.

Influence of the Media and Internet on Policymaking

The media and Internet are among the biggest influence to determine which problems rise to prominence on the national agenda. While many older Americans still look to television, radio, and newspapers to acquire most of their awareness of political issues, younger Americans tend to turn to social media on the Internet for that purpose.

The impact of the media and Internet is highly persuasive where policymaking is concerned. A large body of research reveals a strong relationship between the media agenda and the public agenda, but what has caused this influence?  It may be easy to assume that media outlets emphasize issues that will garner the attention of the public, and that it therefore reflects public opinion. But other analyses have shown that the media and its agenda dictates public opinion itself.

It has been shown that controlled media exposure significantly influences the perceptions that citizens have concerning how important and salient the issues are. However, others have found that the media influenced public opinion on “spectacular” issues such as national defense and crime, but that public opinion influenced media coverage on not-so sensational topics such as environmental issues. In the case of elections, public opinion was only influenced by endorsements that strengthened their initial choices—for example, a voter who already planned to vote on a particular candidate would be likely to increase their enthusiasm when a local newspaper endorsed that candidate, but not so likely to change their mind when the newspaper endorsed his or her opponent.

The relationships between public opinion, media coverage, and policymaking across a variety of policy issues during legislative hearings have also been examined and have shown strong correlations, with the strongest between the media and policymaking and the weakest between the public and policymaking. This examination has suggested that policymakers pay considerable attention to media coverage on important issues and consider that coverage to be of greater importance than public opinion.

Models of Public Policymaking

When it comes to actually making public policy, there are a number of models that can be followed. These models can simplify and clarify how the layman thinks about politics and public policy, a very complex topic. They also help identify important aspects of policy problems, help those involved communicate with each other by focusing on essential features of political life, distinguish what is important and unimportant, and propose explanations for public policy and its potential outcomes and consequences. Among the most common models include:

Institutionalism

Institutionalism, or public policy as institutional output, involves the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Through this model, policy is determined, implemented, and enforced by these three branches of government. Citizens and other informal policy actors have little impact under this model, and its structure and design alone affects the policy’s outcomes. Process Model

Process modelor public policy as political activity, involves voters, interest groups, legislators, presidents, bureaucrats, and judges. Through this model, the problem is identified, an agenda is set, policy proposals are formulated, and policies are legitimized, implemented, and evaluated. All those who participate have a critical impact on the process model.

Group Theory

Group theory, or public policy as group equilibrium, involves interest groups and their allies within the government. In this model, interest groups struggle amongst themselves with the branches of government managing any group conflicts that arise. Groups will always join together to press for particular issues within this model, with all interests having the opportunity to be represented.

Elite Theory

Elite theory, or public policy as elite preference, involves elite individuals within society who have power and therefore the ability to allocate value. Through this model, the preferences and values of the governing elite are implemented as policy, with public officials merely carrying out policies decided on entirely by the elites. The public is apathetic in this model as the elites agree upon norms, political action is merely symbolic, and the status quo is protected.

Rationalism

Rationalism, or public policy for maximum social gain, involves decision makers alone, with all social, political, and economic values sacrificed or achieved through policy choice alone. In this model, policy alternatives are selected that allow society’s gains to exceed benefits by the greatest amount possible. This model assumes that the value preferences of the society as a whole can be known and weighted—in other words, that everyone wants the same thing.

Incrementalism

Incrementalism, or public policy as variations on the past, involves policy makers, legislators, and others who have a stake in ongoing programs or problems. Through this model, past government activities are continued with only small changes. This model accepts established programs to be legitimate and conveys a great fear of unintended consequences.

Elected Officials and Citizens

Public policy originates when a group of officials elected by the people they represent pass a law establishing a public program or service with funding from public sources to enact it. This can happen at the lowest level of government (for example, a homeowners’ association policy regarding water usage) all the way to the federal government (for example, social security). Remarkably, the issues and the players tend to be the same, just at different levels and scale.  

A person’s level of intelligence or accomplishments does not change their personality—and personality, values, and beliefs tend to stand as the biggest barriers to efficient policymaking. The reason why is that they are unlikely to change easily. If no compromise can be reached, then mediation can be pursued. But when even this course of action is not available, any contentious issues could end up in the court system, and a resolution might be months if not years away.

Citizens are aware of politics mainly through the media (television and radio, for instance) and the Internet (primarily social media). As such, they may understand a bit about the issues at the national level but less so at lower levels of government. Citizens are reluctant even to vote if they do not know the candidates or the issues on the ballot. The bottom line is that our political system is at risk without sufficient public participation.

Conclusion

Public policy is a complex topic with many variables to consider. A variety of contexts can drive policy development, implementation and change. Since a number of government officials and informal policy actors participate in this process and are connected to the policy system, analyzing policy is imperative. Solid policy analysis takes into account effectiveness, efficiency, equity, ethics, technical feasibility, political feasibility and institutional capacity.

References

Cogan, A., Sharpe, S., & Hertzberg, J. (1986). Citizen participation. The Practice of state and regional planning. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association.

Parker, B. (2002). Planning Analysis: The Theory of Citizen Participation. University of Oregon. Retrieved from http://pages.uoregon.edu/rgp/PPPM613/class10theory.htm.

Patton, C. V., & Sawicki, D.S. (1986). Basic Methods of Policy Analysis and Planning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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