What Is Public Policy?

PUBLIC POLICY DEFINED

One approach to thinking about public policy is to see it as the broad strategy government uses to do its job. More formally, it is the relatively stable set of purposive governmental actions that address matters of concern to some part of society.James E. Anderson. 2000. Public Policymaking: An Introduction, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. This description is useful in that it helps to explain both what public policy is and what it isn’t. First, public policy is a guide to legislative action that is more or less fixed for long periods of time, not just short-term fixes or single legislative acts. Policy also doesn’t happen by accident, and it is rarely formed simply as the result of the campaign promises of a single elected official, even the president. While elected officials are often important in shaping policy, most policy outcomes are the result of considerable debate, compromise, and refinement that happen over years and are finalized only after input from multiple institutions within government as well as from interest groups and the public.

Consider the example of health care expansion. A follower of politics in the news media may come away thinking the reforms implemented in 2010 were as sudden as they were sweeping, having been developed in the final weeks before they were enacted. The reality is that expanding health care access had actually been a priority of the Democratic Party for several decades. What may have seemed like a policy developed over a period of months was in fact formed after years of analysis, reflection upon existing policy, and even trial implementation of similar types of programs at the state level. Even before passage of the ACA (2010), which expanded health care coverage to millions, and of the HCERA (2010), more than 50 percent of all health care expenditures in the United States already came from federal government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Several House and Senate members from both parties along with First Lady Hillary Clinton had proposed significant expansions in federal health care policy during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, providing a number of different options for any eventual health care overhaul.“National Health Insurance—A Brief History of Reform Efforts in the U.S.,” March 2009, https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/7871.pdf (March 1, 2016). Much of what became the ACA was drawn from proposals originally developed at the state level, by none other than Obama’s 2012 Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.“Romneycare vs. Obamacare: Key Similarities & Differences,” 13 November 2013. http://boston.cbslocal.com/2013/11/13/romneycare-vs-obamacare-key-similarities-differences/ (March 1, 2016).

In addition to being thoughtful and generally stable, public policy deals with issues of concern to some large segment of society, as opposed to matters of interest only to individuals or a small group of people. Governments frequently interact with individual actors like citizens, corporations, or other countries. They may even pass highly specialized pieces of legislation, known as private bills, which confer specific privileges on individual entities. But public policy covers only those issues that are of interest to larger segments of society or that directly or indirectly affect society as a whole. Paying off the loans of a specific individual would not be public policy, but creating a process for loan forgiveness available to certain types of borrowers (such as those who provide a public service by becoming teachers) would certainly rise to the level of public policy.

A final important characteristic of public policy is that it is more than just the actions of government; it also includes the behaviors or outcomes that government action creates. Policy can even be made when government refuses to act in ways that would change the status quo when circumstances or public opinion begin to shift.E. E. Schattschneider. 1960. The Semi-Sovereign People. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. For example, much of the debate over gun safety policy in the United States has centered on the unwillingness of Congress to act, even in the face of public opinion that supports some changes to gun policy. In fact, one of the last major changes occurred in 2004, when lawmakers’ inaction resulted in the expiration of a piece of legislation known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994).Brad Plumer, “Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post,” The Washington Post, 17 December 2012. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2012/12/17/everything-you-need-to-know-about-banning-assault-weapons-in-one-post/ (March 1, 2016).

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