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. According to Torjman (2005) each and every person ‘do policy’ but many people claim to have little or no understanding of it. When people undertake various assignments, policies are involved but may lack the knowledge that what they used in achieving those particular assignments were policies. Cochran & Malone (2014) argues that policies are purposive courses of action devised in response to a perceived problem. As a matter of definition, 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 (Mackay, nd).
Public policy is generally applicable to government. According to Cochran & Malone (2014) public policy is the heart, soul, and identity of governments everywhere. Pacesila (2006) echoes with the understanding and claims that it is only at this level where public policy pursues a traditional approach which their decisions are centred on problem of public interest. However, despite one common understanding, the notion public policy is defined differently and below are some of the definitions widely used: According to Brooks (1989), public policy 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 means that the inactiveness of the government on particular issues could be a strategy which the government could have chosen to follow. This further means that public policies are not individual decisions but they are also not systems of decisions.
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 that the government must undertake decisions and actions to deal with matters of public concern for the present and the future of that particular government.
Public policy is defined as a relatively stable, purposeful course of action taken by Government or public actors in addressing a social problem (Chinsinga, 2007). This can be described as the government having an outline of how its actions are undertaken to achieve public goals, with a good working definition of public policy, for our purposes, being the study of government decisions and actions designed to deal with a matter of public concern.
Since a multitude of meanings of public policy is inevitable, there are other forms such as models, theories, and approaches which are used to highlight certain aspects of public policy behaviours used by analysts. Public policy is indeed very diverse. It can also be understood from the perspective of what the government delivers and normally from what was promised. Cochran & Malone (2014) uses their institutional model to discuss the assertion. Their understanding is that a public policy only becomes official from when it is adopted, implemented, and enforced by some government institution. This means that government institutions are crucial in that once a policy is officially adopted, the government provides legitimacy to that policy by enforcing it through government institutions. This way the public policy is believed to be focusing on policy as the output of government. On the contrary, the public policy phrase according Hogwood & Gunn (1984) must be seen from the viewpoint of their results that is practically obtained. They believe that understanding it from this perspective would help to evaluate whether the declared goal of that policy is reflected in what is effectively obtained after the implementation of the policy. They call this approach policy as a result. John (2012) echoes with Hogwood & Gunn that it is the end result which matters and nothing else. He states this in his institutionalist approach where he understands that policies are outcome of institutional decision making.
The government is understood to be the main actor in the public policy formation process. This is coined in most constitutions where the legislative, executive, and judicial branches are official institutions for the formation of the public policy. The presidential executive orders and parliamentary rules of order are such examples of a public policies. Page (nd), states that there are expectations that principles can play a more consistent role in the development of public policy in systems of party government with a fusion of executive and legislative power in many European countries. Page also states that general principles can be found at the heart of policy programmes in the USA since their domestic impact depends to a substantial degree on the ability to mobilize legislative and executive power in support of them. There are allegations by Hogwood & Gunn (1984) that for policy regarding a given problem to be arrived at by government, there are laws voted by the parliament or a decision of the government, which permit or require activity to be carried out. Their understanding of the public policy in this case is policies as official authorisation.
In most cases, citizens are seen not to be as useful as they really are in the formation of public policy. Birkland (2015) discloses that the two broad categories of participants in the policy making process are official and unofficial actors. However, he forgets that citizens can mobilise to form a group which then may become part and parcel of the public policy formation. According to John (2012) a group of people is a part to the formation of public policy and reveals this in his groups and networks approach. He believes that a public policy formation are as a result of links and connections among different involved actors. Cochran & Malone (2014) in their pluralism model, also known as group model, holds the same views as of John that groups are useful in the formation of the public policy. The model further argues that politics represents the struggle among groups to influence public policy. The statement means that for a policy to be formed there must have been contending views and that compromise must have been met between or among groups.
According to Chinsinga (2007) social problems or issues like unemployment, inflation, housing, land reforms, welfare, and education are the reason for the public policy need. However, arriving at a public policy requires players to scrutinise all contending issues. According to Cochran & Malone (2014) in their elite model, public policy is the reflection of the preferences and values of the power elite. In the theory, there is a claims that society is divided between the elites who have power and the nonelites who do not have power. The theory further suggests that the nonelites are large in numbers and as such have powers to choose policies that reflect their preferences. John (2012) in his rational actor approach thinks otherwise. He stresses that policy decisions are based on rational choice theory where the pursuing of a public policy is based on the more benefits from the consequences attached to it. However, there is also an understanding of public policy from the political aspect where according to Pinteric (2014) there is a belief that it represents the field of political management of substantial areas. He argues that relevant actors develop mutual relations in order to be able to regulate specific area of interest.
In conclusion, it should be noted that public policies are aimed at addressing the issues of public interest. Despite different understandings from different analysts, the public policy still points at the government as the main player in its formation. This makes public policy to be as old as governments