What is Public Policy?

The concept of public policy can be a complex and difficult one to grasp. Public policy designates a broad are that can cross into many disciplines. In its simplest form, public policy has much to do with governing and strategies that a government uses in order to get jobs done. Policies that are public are those that address issues that are of concern to a part of our society. Public policy is usually a fixed set of laws, rules or regulations that serves as a guide for lawmakers for long periods of time. It is purposefully formed and comes about only after much debate, compromise, negotiation, clarification and editing. Public policy is not something that occurs accidentally. It is a result of the input of the public, government officials, and multitudes of institutions, agencies and interest groups.

The History and Evolution of Public Policy

Public policy has been used to change the future of the United States for years. The U.S. public policy, for example, shifted greatly during World Wars I and II, showing how the U.S. public policy influenced other countries. Major public policy documents and moments that have helped shape government include:

  • Magna Carta: This is often cited as the most important public policy document in history. Created in 1215 CE, it introduced the idea of checks and balances on government power. With this document, the king could no longer declare himself to be above the law.
  • S. Constitution:This document, signed in 1787, provided laws created by the people to influence not only public policy but also the people’s rights. A balanced creation of laws instead of a king’s power was used to dictate public policy.
  • Woodrow Wilson:This president during World War II helped to bring the United States and Western Europe together as allies and created the League of Nations, the first international policy organization.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt:This U.S. president’s New Deal policies greatly changed the future of the country, providing financial protection for banks and creating employment opportunities for those displaced during the Great Depression.

What Issues Are of Concern to Those Making Public Policy?

When it comes to public policy, a wide variety of issues that are of concern to and affect large segments of society come into play. Public policy tends to focus more on these broad issues rather than on specific, niche issues that concern just a small group of people. The Almanac of Policy Issues identified the following major categories of public policy issues. They may include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Health care and its many ins and outs including health insurance, health care expansion and health care reform
  • Economic issues, such as debt and loan forgiveness plans as well as budgeting and taxes
  • Gun safety and gun control
  • Access to education for all at all levels
  • Criminal justice, including drug policy and the death penalty
  • Culture and society, including issues such as abortion rights and civil rights
  • Environmental issues including global warming and air quality
  • Governmental operations including privatization and campaign finance reform
  • Social welfare programs such as social security and welfare
  • Foreign affairs like defense spending and national security issues

Types of Public Policy in the United States

In addition to the broad categories of public policies listed above, there are major types of public policy that are dealt with by government officials in the United States. These include:

  • Agricultural policy, including laws and regulations that govern how agriculture is created and used for export and commodities, and established by the federal government’s U.S. Farm Bills
  • Drug policy, established by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. These policies are designed to get rid of illegal drug use, manufacturing and trafficking, as well as to reduce crimes related to drug use and health consequences related to drug use.
  • Energy policy, which concerns energy production, distribution and consumption and is regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy
  • Foreign policy, which defines how the U.S. interacts with foreign countries as well as the security of the people of the U.S.

The online publication CQ Almanac keeps a Policy Tracker database of policies relating to a vast array of topics.

Outcomes Creating Public Policy

Public policy is not just the result of the actions of government. It can also result from outcomes or behaviors that the actions of government create or influence. Failure of a government to act can also create its own public policy, as citizens shift their opinions and feelings on a subject.

Public policy is the formal expression of the ideas that elected officials are striving to achieve. When government officials create public policy, they usually want to publicize this, for their own benefit come election time as well as to alert the general public to new policy that has been made.

Some examples of major public policy that has been created include:

  • The ending of school segregation, which resulted from Brown v. Board of Education of Topekain 1954
  • Passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, which then gave powers to the Environmental Protection Agency to determine regulations and standards for clean water
  • Expiration in 2004 of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that had been created in 1994, due to legislators’ failure to take action
  • Passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which expanded health care coverage to millions of Americans and ultimately resulted from research and proposals from the 1990s and early 2000s

Rewards and Losses Due to Public Policy

Public policy rewards certain types of behavior and punishes other types of behavior. If a policy favors certain groups or individuals, they are rewarded. If a policy ignores or “punishes” other groups or individuals, they lose out. Some examples include:

  • If a public policy is put into place that is designed to encourage more students to attend liberal arts colleges, fewer students may be attending trade schools. In this scenario, liberal arts colleges are the winners and trade schools are the losers.
  • Diversity programs that encourage schools to admit more diverse applicants may make it more difficult for white male applicants to be accepted.
  • Offering tax incentives to those who give to charity can lower tax revenues of the rich (who tend to give more of their income to charity) and shift tax burdens to the poor (who must spend more of their income to achieve a normal standard of living).

These winners and losers will make their feelings and opinions known come election time, voting for elected officials whose public policies have helped them and voting against those whom they feel policies have worked against them.