What is Public Policy? Policy Making, Approaches, Characteristics, Types

What is Public Policy

Thomas Dye defined Public Policy as “Whatever the government chooses to do or not to do”. Public policy can be generally defined as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives. The topic of public policy, which consists of various plans, program and schemes, emanates from the Constitution and is very relevant to governance, as a collective decision-making process is key to solving public problems. The origin of the discipline of public policy, which is one of the most prominent means through which government maintains order and addresses the needs of its citizens according to the constitution, is from the realization of the fact that running a state requires a well-needed direction and a course of action.

Nature of Public Policy

From the perspectives of Public Policy, the activities of the government can be put into three categories:

  1. Activities that are attached to specific policies
  2. Activities that are general in nature
  3. Activities that are based on vague and ambiguous policies

A public policy may cover a major portion of the activities of the government, and maybe either narrow, focused towards a specific activity or broad, focusing on a more general activity. Each level of government may have its specific as well as general policies. Although every policy contains definite goals or objectives, they might result in outcomes that are either anticipated or not.

Policymaking is closely related to decision-making but is not the same as the latter. Generally, decisions are made by administrators within the existing framework of policy. According to Anderson, “Policy decisions are made by public officials that authorize or give direction and content to public policy actions”.

Public Policy Making

Public Policies are crafted by Legislature, Executive and Judiciary and are evaluated by policy analysts, experts, media and political leaders. It involves various processes, and can be summarized into the following:

  • Problem identification – the first step is to identify the problem regarding which the government has to intervene in the form of a public policy. This might be identified through the government via various means, such as general identification, public protests, through the media etc.
  • Agenda Setting – This step helps policymakers decide the agenda of problems to be addressed. Types of agendas include:
    • Systematic agendas – comprise of all issues that policymakers find worthy of attention.
    • Institutional agendas – analyze problems and their solutions within a time boundary
    • Discretionary agendas – address problems that are chosen by legislators and haven’t been included in the former ones
    • Decision agendas – contain the finalized list of issues to be moved to the next phase of the policy-making cycle.
  • Policy formulation– It involves the proposal of solutions to issues raised in the agenda. The process of policy formulation involves policymakers discussing and suggesting various methods to correct the issues raised by the agenda. Various methods and paths towards framing the most apt policy are considered, and finally, the most effective policy is chosen, on the basis of two factors:
    • The policy must be an effective, reliable and implementable way to solve issues
    • The policy must be politically feasible
  • Policy adoption – This is the process through which the finalized policy is adopted by government bodies for implementation. It must be adopted by relevant institutions of the government to be put into effect.
  • Policy implementation – This step involves the practical implementation of the theoretical proposal of the policy. The success of the implementation of a policy is evaluated according to:
    • Whether it is communicated accurately from the creator of the policy to the bureaucratic governing body
    • Whether the policy is clear, concise, and easy to interpret for the public.
    • Whether the resources used in the implementation integrate with the existing processes and agencies, not causing them extensive disruption, competition or conflict.
  • Policy Evaluation – Policies may be evaluated and analyzed critically at various levels. Research and extensive studies are also conducted to analyze the success of the implemented policies. Policy analysts, politicians and the media play significant roles in evaluating the policies that are implemented. On evaluation, policies may be found to be either successful or failures. A policy may have a poor outcome due to:
    • Error in identifying the problem
    • Faults in formulating the policy
    • Inaccurate implementation of the policy

Approaches to Public Policy

  • Political system theory – says that policy is the output of the political system.
  • Group theory – says that interest groups pressure and interact with the makers on preferences and self-interest
  • Elite theory – says that the policy reflects the values and preferences of governing Elites.
  • Rational choice theory – says that the government should choose policies resulting in maximum gains to the society
  • Institutional theory – says that public policy is determined by government institutions
  • Incremental model – evaluates public policy as small changes or adjustments in past policies
  • Game theory – the study of rational decisions in situations where two or more participants have choices to make and the outcome depends on the choices made by each.

Characteristics of Public Policy Making

  • Public policy is not decided by a single individual or institution. There are multiple components involved in the process, from identifying the problem to evaluating the success of a policy. Hence, it is a process that takes into play multiple components.
  • Public Policy Making demands co-ordination between different individuals and institutions. A successful public policy is yielded out of the procedures when each of them co-ordinate and perform well with their duties and responsibilities. This makes the making of public policy a very complex process. It is also a dynamic process, which changes from time-to-time.
  • The primary aim behind making a public policy is to lay guidelines for the public with regard to a certain problem of general concern. Every public policy aims at laying out feasible and agreeable guidelines and bringing them into action. Hence, the making of public policy is a result-oriented process.
  • While designing public policy, policymakers also look at the ways in which it would affect the future. Any public policy is crafted, directing to the future.
  • It is the citizens that are supposed to benefit the mist from a public policy. Therefore, every public policy takes into account the interests of the public.

Types of Public Policy

  • Substantive – policies that are concerned with the general welfare and development of the society
  • Regulatory – deals with the regulation of trade, business, safety measures etc.
  • Distributive – focuses on specific sectors of the society
  • Redistributive – concerned with the rearrangement of policies aimed at making socio-economic changes
  • Capitalisation– Under this type of policy, the Union government provides subsidies to different lower levels of government and other business undertakings.


Thus, we know that public policies are the collectively formulated decisions that a government undertakes in order to achieve certain objectives, with respect to the public. Public policymaking, adoption and implementation are very important to the efficient governance of any country. Each and every process in the policymaking and each person, institution or department that takes place in the same, are very important and crucial to the analyzing and evaluating the policies.

Share on:

Student of Economics in Miranda House, University of Delhi. Interested in writing, reading, music, painting, public speaking, and debating.Aspiring Economist. A dreamer who loves the smiles and colours of the world.