Public policy is an ancient concept same as the government itself. In any system of government there has been making and implementation of public policies. In their daily lives citizens are affected by so many public policies. Public policies have merits and demerits; they cause pleasure, pain, and collectively have important consequences for people’s well-being. To solve varied problems and demands of the citizens the government has to create several policies, these policies are called public policies. There are so many policies out there but it is the aim of this essay to explain the meaning of public policy.
First and foremost, the word policy refers to the purposive course of action that an individual or group consistently follows in dealing with a problem (Anderson 2015). Whether it is in the public or private sector, policies can also be thought of as the instruments through which societies regulate themselves and attempt to channel human behavior in acceptable directions. Although other scholars define policy in this way, there is no universally accepted definition of what institutes public policy in the modern world. Despite the dissimilar opinions of public policy, many scholars have attempted to define public policy from different viewpoints. Friedrich (1976) argues that public policy is a proposed course of action of a person, group, or government within a given environment providing opportunities and obstacles on which the policy was proposed to utilize and overcome in an effort to reach a goal or realize an objective or purpose. Rose (1976) says public policy is government’s program of action to give effect to selected normative and empirical goals in order to address perceived problems and needs in society in a specific way and therefore achieve desired changes in that society.
On the other hand, for us to understand the meaning of policy in a better manner; it is very significant to see a distinction that is there between policy and goals. Goals are what policies aim at or hope to achieve. A goal is a desired state of affairs that a society or an organization attempts to realize. Goals can be understood in a diversity of perspectives. These can be thought of as abstract values that a society would like to acquire (Dunn, 2009). There are also goals that are specific and concrete. Removal of poverty for example is a goal that the government wants to pursue. Public policies are concerned with such specific goals. They are the instruments which lead to the achievement of these goals. If the government announces that its goal is to give affordable housing to all the members of the deprived sections of society it does not become a public policy, this is a statement of intention of what the government wants to do. Many times the government announces goals that it has to achieve, and for it to become a policy, the goal has to be translated into action. Programs have to be introduced to achieve specific objectives. Just a matter of illustration, Malawi has a policy of poverty alleviation. Because of this many programs have been intended for this, e.g., the Malawi Rural Electrification Program (MAREP), the Malata and cement subsidy, the fertilizer subsidy just to mention a few. Each program has particular goals to achieve within a specified time and each program is provided with financial possessions and administrative personnel. These become concrete efforts to achieve a goal. Policy spells out the strategy of achieving a goal. Consequently policy is basically an instrument to achieve a goal.
Another distinction needs to be drawn between a policy and a decision. Individuals, organizations or government are constantly taking decisions. But all the decisions that are taken cannot be described as matters of policy. The essential core of decision-making is to create a choice from the alternatives accessible in order to take an action, if there is only one course of action accessible then there is nothing one can choose from and so, no decision can be taken. A decision can be taken only when there is more than one alternative accessible. Therefore a decision is the act of making a choice.
There can be two types of decisions, programmed and none programmed. Programmed decisions are repetitive and do not require a fresh consideration every time they are taken. In programmed decisions, habits, skills, and knowledge in relation to the problem are important. For example, once the decision to open the library from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Mzuzu University is taken, it does not require fresh consideration to keep it open throughout those hours. The decision is incorporated into procedures that are recognized for that purpose. Non programmed decisions are new and unstructured. No well laid-out methods are accessible for such decisions, each issue or question is to be dealt with separately. Such decisions are required in the situations of unprecedented nature, for instance breakdown of an epidemic, occurrence of earthquake, etc. Training in skills, needed for such decisions and innovative skill become relevant in this regard. Both the programmed and non-programmed decisions have to be taken in a broad framework or course of action. Public policy is the broad direction or perspective that the government lays down in order to take decisions. Decision can be a onetime action while Policy consists of many decisions that are taken to fulfill its aims. A policy consists of a series of decisions tied jointly into a coherent whole. There can be some parallel in the processes involved in decision making and policy making. Both are concerned with choice in the middle of alternatives and for both similar processes can be followed in generating alternatives. However, we should always keep in mind that policy is a more comprehensive term, as it encompasses a series of decisions and has a relatively longer time perspective.
In conclusion, it is clear that public policies are government decisions, and they come as a result of activities which the government undertakes in undertaking certain goals and objectives. It can also be said that public policy formulation and implementation involves a well-planned pattern or course of activity in order to achieve intended goals
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Anderson, J. E. (2003). Public policymaking: An introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 1 – 34
Thei, Geurts; Be Informed (2010). “Public Policy: The 21st Century Perspective”.
Hill, Michael (2005). Public Policy Process. Pearson.
Rose, R. (2007). Ordinary People in Public Policy.
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