THE MEANING OF PUBLIC POLICY
Public policy is not a new concept in as far as the history of governments is concerned. Even though the concept has dominated a number of social and political discussions, its meaning is always misunderstood. Different scholars and academia have attempted to provide for definitions, approaches, models, theories among others for the concept. Therefore, this essay seeks to explain the meaning of the concept of public policy from different scholarly understandings.
Before a deep understanding of the term public policy, it is important to understand what policy entails. Cochran & Malone (2014) argues that policies are purposive courses of action devised in response to a perceived problem. When people undertake various assignments, policies are involved but may lack the knowledge that what they used in achieving those particular assignments were policies. Just as Torjman (2005) has stressed, each and every person ‘do policy’ but many people claim to have little or no understanding of it. A definition can be adopted from Mackay (nd), who has proposed that, a policy refers to a distinct path of action which is suitable for the pursuit of desired goals within a particular context, directing the decision making of an organization or individual
As a major point of this discussion, public policy is generally applicable to government. According to Cochran & Malone (2014) public policy is the heart, soul, and identity of governments everywhere. This means that public policy is inherent in every government and also the engine that sustain its existence. Mainly public policies are centred on solving problems of public interest. This understanding of public policy is grounded on the notion that public policy as an affair of the government. The following definitions attempt to give a clear understanding of the meaning of public policy. Firstly, public policy as Brooks (1989) suggests ‘is the broad framework of ideas and values within which decisions are taken and action, or inaction, is pursued by governments in relation to some issue or problem.’ This definition views public policy as specific proposals which political organisations would like to see undertaken by government. Such proposals can be ad hoc, can be necessarily related to other proposals or can constitute the means of achieving more general goals Hogwood & Gunn (1984).
Apart from that, Daneke & Steiss (1978) defines public policy as a broad guide to present and future decisions, selected in light of given conditions from a number of alternatives; the actual decision or set of decisions designed to carry out the chosen course of actions; a projected program consisting of desired objectives (goals) and the means of achieving them. Public policy in this case means decisions of government to deal with matters of public concern for the present and the future of that particular government.
Another definition of public policy according to Chinsinga (2007) is as a relatively stable, purposeful course of action taken by Government or public actors in addressing a social problem. Chinsinga mentions social problems or issues like unemployment, inflation, housing, land reforms, welfare, and education as the reasons for the public policy need. This understanding of public policy entails that public policy should be seen as what the government delivers and normally from what was promised. This understanding of public policy attracts Hogwood & Gunn (1984) views who asserts it as simply implying ‘fields’ of government activity where there are no demarcations to show the progress of the desired public policy and even the end result yielded from implemented public policy. It further does not show if the action and inaction are policies of government and that if inaction is a policy, when and how can it be known that the governments’ inaction is that it does not have knowledge on the issue.
Additionally, Richard ; Baldwin (1976) defined public policy as formulation of rules, norms and prescriptions intended to govern the subsequent decisions and actions of government. The definition reveals that there are formal public policies in place pertaining what a government would want to fulfil for its citizens. These come about through an outline; thus, the adoption, implementation and enforcement of that particular public policy by some government institutions like the executive, legislature and judiciary. According to Pacisela (2006), the definition of public policy by Richard ; Baldwin is policy as official authorisation, where he alleges that there are laws voted by the parliament or decisions of government, which permit or require a certain activity to be carried out. Reaching this far, it can be drawn from the understanding that government institutions are crucial in the formulation and implementation of the public policy since it follows a well-planned pattern or course of activity hence the uniformity. When this whole process is fulfilled the public policy becomes legitimate.
In this modern age, public policy has demonstrated the loss of some form of universality. Essentially, this has invited further understanding to the public policy concept as Pacisela (2006) suggests. He proposes that public policies be understood as a product where the government imposes and implements public policies difference to what it promised or authorised through legislation. Pacisela (2006) further suggests the supply of goods and services, the application of rules or the collection of taxes for examples to this understanding. In reality, these policies may not have been arrived at through the formal process. This, therefore, construct problems that affect the daily lives of people directly or indirectly since these may not be the real issues that may be needed by the people on the ground. Cochran ; Malone (2014) complements to the Pacisela understanding of public policy in their elite model where they claim that public policy is the reflection of the preferences and values of the power elite. Those in power may only consider advancing a policy they want without actually going for something with more benefits from their shortfalls. This is where John (2012) advises in his rational actor approach that policy decisions should be based on rational choice theory where the pursuing of a public policy is based on the more benefits from the consequences attached to it.
Change though usually inevitable, is difficult and as such it takes time before it can finally materialise. This public policy understanding is espoused in Robert Eye Stone definition who defines it as “the relationship of government unit to its environment. By this, it means that there are a variety of things which the government need to do for the well-being and happiness of its citizens. Initially, these are things which in most cases people cannot single headedly attain them. This is supported by Torjman (2005) who claims that there are some duties which are exclusively for the government to provide for its citizens. In his understanding, he thinks it is the duty of the government to formulate public policies to determine quality air for breathing, quality water for drinking and availability of food to all citizens among others. It is understood that policies like these last longer and this is suggested that it is like that because they undergo a gradual change. In this regard, Pacisela (2006) understands this public policy as process.
Lastly, Carl J. Friedrich’s defines public policy as a proposed course of action of a person, group or government within a given environment providing opportunities and obstacles which the policy was proposed to utilise and overcome in an effort to reach a goal or realise an objective or purpose. This definition stipulates that public policies are governmental decisions which are undertaken by the government to attain certain goals and objectives. When government policy is concerned with getting the end result, Hogwood & Gunn (1984) calls this, policies as a result and John (2012) in his institutionalist approach understands these policies as outcome of institutional decision making.
In conclusion, it should be noted that public policies are governmental tools mainly used at addressing issues of public interest. Despite some different understanding of the concept by different analysts, the majority singles out the government for the main player in formulation of the public policy, making it to be as old as governments.