Public Policy Formulation-1: Definition, Types, & Components


During the last few years, public policy studies have been receiving a lot of attention in academic circles all over the world for diverse reasons. Besides the increasing awareness about the role and importance of public policy formulation and implementation in tackling the multifaceted challenges being faced by every country, the main reason for this interest in public policy issues has been the increasingly assertive role of civil society organizations and the media. They want to know the way public policies affecting a common man are formulated and how the governance apparatus works to enable them to make an informed judgement and take appropriate actions.

In these three articles, we will examine the way policies are formulated, implemented, and monitored the steps involved, and the activities to be performed in the various steps. It also lists the criteria to judge the efficacy of a policy and ends with the major weaknesses of policy formulation in a typical developing country like Pakistan.

What is a Public Policy

Defining a term in any branch of social science is fairly more difficult than it seems to be because you have to then explain in detail what you want to define. Public Policy is one such concept. In normal parlance, it is a formally documented statement of intentions and sets of actions of a government to either remove certain deficiencies or improve the conditions in any particular area of concern/interest.

Thomas Dye defines it as “Whatever governments choose to do or not to do” (1987) while according to Anderson it is a “Purposive course of action or inaction undertaken by an actor or a set of actors in dealing with a problem or matter of concern” (1994). Dean G. Kilpatrick goes a bit further and defines it as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.

Features of Public Policy

Whatever definition you like to use, there are certain features of the whole process of public policy which are common in all countries. These features are;

  1. Different Formats

A policy could either be a part of an overall development policy and strategy of the country i.e. Growth Strategy for Pakistan prepared by the Planning Commission or it could be a specific document addressing a particular issue i.e. Food Security Policy, Poverty Reduction Strategy, National Housing Policy, Climate Change Policy

2. Not a Random Act

Policy formulation and implementation is not a random act of an organization, rather it is a deliberate action taken by a competent authority that initiated the action and is approved by the public representatives, usually the minister in charge of a ministry or the cabinet.

3. Intrinsic Sanctity

Although it is not a piece of legislation approved by the parliament in the form of an act of parliament, it has the sanctity of its own and can be used as a reference for dispute resolution in a court of law. In some cases, the policy itself or parts of the document, which is, in essence, a value judgement of the regime in power, could be converted into an act of parliament.

4. Exclusive Domain of the Elected Representatives

Public policy formulation is the exclusive domain of the elected representatives of the county; however, it is implemented by the state apparatus which formulates strategies to implement it. Consequently, a policy is distinct from the strategy in the sense that while the policy is fairly general indicating what is to be done and why the strategy outlines the exact measures to be taken for realizing the goals and objectives set out by the policy.

Types of Public Policies:

Generally, there are four main types of public policy: distributive, redistributive, regulative, and constituent.

  1. Distributive: These types of policies are generally formulated in response to a specific issue and affect only a select group of people in society although their impact could be far-reaching. For example, regulations passed and directions issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in a country regarding levels of carbon emissions in vehicles will affect car manufacturers more than other kinds of businesses. Although these regulations applied to one group of manufacturers but their benefits could be enjoyed by everyone in the form of improved air quality.
  2. Redistributive: On the other hand, redistributive policies affect the majority. For example, the compulsory pension contributions for the employees affect any business hiring an employee.
  3. Regulative: These policies are often applied to businesses and corporations to impose good business practices.
  4. Constituent: Any policy converted into proper legislation is a constituent public policy.

Why We Need Policies?

There are three main reasons for the formulation of clear cut policy on any issue

  1. Awareness Creation

Firstly, to create awareness among the public in general and the stakeholders in particular about the resolve of the government to address the pressing issue for which a policy is being formulated. By creating such awareness among various sections of the society about its sincerity and seriousness to effectively address the problem, it hopes to get the tax and non-tax support of the people. At the same time, it can avoid bad publicity in the media and anger the civil society

2. Big Picture

Secondly, policies are always part and parcel of the big picture which is in the mind of the governing elite of a country. By formulating a holistic policy in the broader perspectives of its overall aims and objectives, the government intends to give clear guidelines to those implementing these policies regarding the best way to solve a problem. There should not be any ambiguity about the respective domains of different policies which should have in fact a synergic, not divisive effect on the achievement of national interest.

3. Transparency

Thirdly, clear-cut policies are needed to ensure transparency about the government’s intentions, actions, and priorities. People should know who is getting what and raise their objections if there are some serious equity issues in the allocation of resources. Homeless people have the right to object to housing policy that allocates too many resources on the carpeting of roads of posh areas while setting aside peanuts for slums and low-income housing societies. Building motorways for cars at the expense of village-to-market roads are sheer inequitable use of resources in a developing country

Components of a Public Policy

Typically promulgated through official written documents under the signature of the competent authority, such documents often have standard formats which generally have the following elements;

  1. Preamble: Outlining the context of the policy being promulgated, the preamble, usually a short one or two-paragraph statement, explains why there is a need to formulate the policy, particularly the intent that led to the creation of the policy, and what its desired effects or outcomes.
  2. Definitions: Important terms and concepts used in the policy document are clearly and unambiguously defined to obviate the possibility of their multiple interpretations.
  3. Scope: Here the policy document describes the segments of people, regions of the country, and organisations that will be affected by this policy. It may include certain groups, areas, or organisations for preferential treatment or exclude certain people, organizations, or actions from the policy requirements.
  4. Date of Application: This section indicates when the policy will come into force. Normally policies are applicable with effect from a future date but in exceptional cases, a policy can have retroactive application for a very valid reason.
  5. Policy Directions: This is the meat of any policy document, indicating the specific regulations, requirements, or modifications that the policy intends to promulgate. General in nature, these statements give broad directions to those implementing them regarding the actions to be taken. Based on these statements, a strategy or set of strategies will be prepared by those responsible for its execution
  6. Institutional Mechanism: Every policy has a home, the ministry, or the organisation which is responsible for its formulation and implementation. However, the policy will clearly delineate the agencies, existing or to be created, and parties and organizations responsible for carrying out individual policy statements are designated.
  7. Repeal Clause: Every policy must repeal any similar policy or its certain clauses affected by the new policy issued in the past

Approaches to Public Policy Formulation

Also known as a model, which to me is a misnomer, an approach is the perspective one uses to study public policy formulation. Strictly speaking, a model (which we are going to study later) describes the precise procedure of the formulation of a public policy from its start to end, passing through different stages.

On the other hand, an approach to public policy formulation refers to the way a person looks at it in different countries or different contexts within the same country. Some will study it as the way the rich elite in a country safeguards its corporate interests by capturing the whole process while others may see this process as a genuine exercise of the state to improve the quality of its under-represent classes.

As different groups of experts on public policy have different approaches to its study, we can identify the following five approaches in this respect

A. Institutional Approach

B. Elite-Mass Approach

C. Group Approach

D. Systems Approach

E. Streams and Windows Approach

Let me explain them in detail

A. Institutional Approach

Focusing on the organization of government based on constitutional provisions, administrative and common law, and judicial decisions, this traditional approach considers public policy formulation as a value-neutral formal government activity by highlighting the duties and arrangements of different institutions in policy formulation. Heavily borrowing from political science, its main emphasis is on formal arrangements such as separation of powers, federal form of government, relations among institutions, etc. As a policy is not a public policy until it is adopted, implemented, and enforced by some governmental institution, consequently, those following this approach are more interested to analyse the interaction among institutions that authoritatively determine, implement, and enforce public policy.

B. Elite-Mass Approach

As opposed to the above, the proponents of this approach do not consider public policy formulation as a neutral process but rather an effort by the powerful to allocate state resources for their own benefit. They believe that every society is divided into two groups with multiple shades namely haves or elite and have-nots or masses; those who have power and those who do not. Elites share values that differentiate them from the mass. In an environment characterized by power asymmetry and information distortion, it is the small policy-making elite that makes the policy reflect elite values and preserve the status quo. Thus, as per them, the public policy may be viewed as the values and preferences of a governing elite i.e., private property, limited government, and individual liberty.

Public officials and administrators merely carry out policies decided on by the elite, which flows ‘down’ to the mass. The mass is apathetic and ill-informed; mass sentiments are manipulated by the elite; the mass has only an indirect influence on decisions and policy. As communication flows only downward, democratic popular elections are symbolic in that they tie the mass to the system through a political party and occasional voting. There may be a movement of non-elites into elite positions, but only after they accept elite values, to maintain stability and avoid revolution. Consequently, changes in public policy will be incremental rather than revolutionary.

C. Group Approach

Also called equilibrium theory, this approach treats public policy formulation as an intense and constant interaction among societal pressure groups vying to safeguard their respective corporate interests. Although the visible contest among these groups on the floor of the parliament, there is intense behind the scenes lobbying by these pressure groups. Not only parliamentarians but also the executive, media, and civil society organisations are pressurised by these interest groups.

In any polity, even in an authoritarian one, the interaction between pressure or interest groups and governmental agencies is a normal practice. This interaction may range from a simple exchange of information to hard bargaining for the acceptance of demands. Policymakers respond to group pressure by bargaining, negotiating, and compromising among competing demands. The task of the political system is to not only establish the rules of the game and arrange compromises but also to enact compromises in public policy and enforce these compromises.

Consequently, every pressure group tries to win over the concerned governmental agency by all means at its disposal. Influence is determined by numbers, wealth, organizational strength, leadership, access to decision-makers, and internal cohesion.

Once captured by an interest group, a government agency established to regulate the affairs of the sector of the economy or society becomes their hostage. Sometimes they are unable to distinguish between policies that will promote public welfare or safeguard the corporate interests of the pressure group.

D. Systems Approach

Borrowed straight away from computer science, this approach treats public policy formulation as a mechanical process whereby a public policy is viewed as the response of the political system to forces brought to bear on it from the outside environment. In a PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal) environment surrounding a political system, this model looks at the public demands (grievances) and public supports (rule obedience) as inputs.

These inputs are processed in the political system, consisting of interrelated institutional structures, authority holders, parliamentarians, media, civil society organisations, and, interest groups. The political system transforms inputs into outputs for the whole society such as decisions and actions, known as public policies. These could be macro public policies applicable to the whole of the political system or micro public policies meant for a sub-sector of the system.

The system preserves itself by producing reasonably satisfactory outputs (compromises are arranged, enacted, and enforced). It relies on deep-rooted support for the system itself and its use, or threat of use, of force.

Proponents of this approach to public policy formulation are interested to ask questions such as:

a. What are the significant demands being generated?

b. What are the characteristics of the environment that generate such demands?

c. What are the significant characteristics of the political system that enable it to endure over time and turn demands into output?

d. How do environmental inputs affect the political system?

e. How do characteristics of the political system affect public policy?

f. How do environmental characteristics affect public policy?

g. How does public policy through feedback, affect the environment and the political system itself?

E. Streams and Windows Approach

This is an interesting approach explaining the process of public policy formulation as a fortuitous convergence of three streams at some point leading to the opening of a “Window of Opportunity” through which a consensus public policy emerges. The three streams are as follows;

1. The Problem Stream: There is a problem serious enough to attract the attention of the public and then of the policymakers through any source, directly or indirectly

2. The Political Stream: Once a problem has been identified, categorised, and prioritised, the government agenda is formed as the result of the interaction of major players and forces. A consensus is achieved among those groups and a bandwagon effect occurs as everyone wants to be in on the policy resolution and not excluded.

3. The Policy Stream: It is where a list of alternatives is generated from which policymakers can select one. Efforts are made to gauge the political feasibility of various alternatives. They must be acceptable in terms of value constraints, technical constraints, and budgetary constraints. Consensus is developed through rational argument and persuasion and continues till a plausible solution begins to emerge.

When these three streams converge, a policy window may open, because of a shift in public opinion, a change in electoral composition, or when the problem becomes pressing. Anyone stream may change on its own, but all three must converge for a policy decision to emerge.


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You may like to read also

  1. Public Policy Formulation-2: Process & Challenges

2. Public Policy Formulation-3: Features of a Good Public Policy

3. Public Policy Formulation-4: Case Study-Policy Formulation in Pakistan

4. How to Ask Good Questions?

5. Twelve Principles of Effective Negotiations

6. How to Make Effective Presentations?

7. Digital Governance: A Public Policy Perspective



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