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A Critique of Public Policy





The term “public policy” has been generally defined by Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia as “the course of action or inaction taken by governmental entities (the decisions of government) with regard to a particular issue or set of issues.” It can also be regarded as “a system of course of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.” Robert and Clark (1982) as quoted Okeke (2001) defined public policy as a “series of steps taken by a government to solve problems, make decisions, allocate resources or values, implement policies and in general to do the things expected of them by their constituencies.” Moreover, Kay in his article on “What is Public Policy?” defined public policy as “whatever governments choose to do or not to do.” Looking at these wide ranges of definitions by different scholars, two main themes may be identified. First, public policy is set of action undertaken by the government. Second, it is purposive and goal-oriented since it seeks to solve a particular social problem. However, Egonmwan (2001) stated emphatically that conceiving public policy in the above manner is narrow and myopic since it lacked a clear description of what public policy is and as such may not be appropriate for public policy analysis. At this point, Egonmwam further identified the definition as supplied by Jenkins (1978) which defined public policy as “a set of interrelated decisions by a political actor or group of actors concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them within a specific situation where those decisions should, in principle, be within the power of those actors to achieve” as appropriate.


However, the problem of defining what public policy is or constitutes has led into specifying its characteristics. Generally, what must be considered as public policy must be viewed its relation to the actions or inactions of government. Again, it must involve a process of decision making, and exchange of information, resources, bargaining within an organizational framework. Also, public policy entails the interaction of a variety of interest groups, and must be statutory, regulatory and constitutional backed. Furthermore, public policy is goal-oriented directed toward solving social problem.  However, in a concise and simple manner, the constituent elements or character of public policy must revolve around issues as:

It must be established by the government, directed toward social problem, and supported by the society. Also, the article of Wisegeek on “what is public policy” stated that there are three parts of public policy-making: problems, players and the policy. According to the article,

                   the problem is the issue that needs to be addressed.

                   The player is the individual or group that is influential

                   in forming a plan to address the problem in question.

                   Policy is the finalized course of action decided upon

                   by the government.

From the foregoing, it is discernible that there are a lot of problem in coming to term on what is public policy as well as identifying its characteristics.

Moreover, shaping public policy is a complex and multifaceted process which involves the interplay of numerous individuals and interest groups who compete and collaborate to influence policymakers to act for their own interest. With this, it is obvious that what may be considered as an action taken for public interest is actually taken for the benefit of smaller group of the entire society who manipulates and influences the policy makers to make the policy in their interest. These individuals and groups use a variety of tactics and tools to advance their aims, including advocating their position publicly, attempting to educate supporters and opponents, and mobilizing allies on a particular issue. It is against this backdrop that we deem it necessary to explore critically what constituted public policy.


At first, the argument that public policy is a “planned action” needed to be explained further that it is not an irrational planned action but a rational planned action. This viewpoint has been supported by policies made in most developing nations like Nigeria. Therefore, whenever it is said that public policy is a planned action, it must also be bore in mind that it involved a rational process of planning before acting, a process supported by a strong knowledge of the area where the action is targeted to. This has to do with identifying the problem, establishing the objectives, allocate the resources, and control the whole action. The type of action will vary according to the proposed goals. However, from the above view, it is discernible that public policy has two dimensions: knowledge and action, the former aimed at supporting the latter.


Second, the focus of scholars on governmental action whenever the issue of public policy is discussed is myopic since government alone does not make public policy, recognition must be given to non-governmental institution or other groups which play key role in planning and executing public policies. Therefore, to be involved in public policy is not necessary to be a politician, government official, or policy scholar. Non-governmental organizations, business association, private companies, individual or even the media can be involved in the public policy process. However, the actors in the policy scenario and the functions they carry out for dealing with any policy issue will depend on the type and complexity of the problem being targeted.


Third, public policy dimensions, knowledge and action, must be understood in that order. The knowledge to solve policy issue should be provided by policy research, based on its own theories or theories provided by other disciplines. It is not needed knowledge per se, but “knowledge-for-action”. The policy research must provide knowledge to be used by policy-makers to find solutions for real problems. Any other kind of policy research (the one that is not designed specifically by thinking about solving real problems) is useless. As a result of this, we can think that doing public policy research is not only the research activity in itself, but also the correct identification of the demand for solutions to real problems.


Lastly, public policy definitions hinged more efforts on providing a blue-print or plan of action for a problem. This is to say that it mostly considers what should be done in a problem situation and geared less or no effort toward policy implementation which is the most important aspect of policy making. However, any policy that lacks implementation is as good as nothing. Therefore, public policy definitions must attempt to include this crucial aspect of public policy making.


To conclude, public policy analysts have a greater job to do in terms of supplying the proper definition of public policy which can serve as a guide for the understanding of public policy in general. Moreover, the conceptual definition of public policy should see it, not only as a planned action, but as a rational planned action of active political agents formulated through the understanding of problem and provision of the implemental solution to the problem for the benefit of every member of the society. Therefore, effort of the policy maker should be on identifying good policies that can benefit every individual in their various constituencies.  



William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on June 30, 2010:

Good Day Pconline

What is public policy? This is a deceptively simple and important question. Your article is a valuable clarification of the matter -- just as you advertise in the subtitle. Your procedure is sound in that you delved into what is the precise question being asked; and you examined the underlying assumptions upon which the term 'public policy' generally rests.

Now that you mention it, I agree that the focus of scholars on governmental action is too narrow, by far. Analysis needs to be as holistic as the variety of forces which act in concert, to bring about hopefully progressive public policy.

For example, people point to Lyndon Baines Johnson as one of the great post World War II presidents -- on domestic issues and civil rights (not so much on foreign affairs),as he deserves to be. However, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, for example, which he navigated to passage, masterfully, through the congress so that it could land on his desk to sign - and which seems to have come, despite everything, from a personally felt commitment to improving the lot of minorities (Johnson was a man of tremendous contradictions) - did not just come from him. It had taken the decades-long struggle among the grassroots African-American community and their allies, to set the stage, politically, raise the consciousness of and, frankly, raise the level of civilization of American society to bring about the environment where such legislative action was credible.

I have heard his wife say as much on camera. If your a politician (whose reason for being is to respond to the political winds, after all) you have to wait for the proper political moment to do truly great things. On issues that really matter, public policy should be understood to be public in its very inception.

We should look at the involvement of civil rights leaders and other grassroots organizers in helping to shape the policy (what conversations did Martin Luther King Jr. and others have with Johnson? What about their testimony before congress? and so forth).

Anyway, well done!

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