In the course of their day-to-day lives, people are affected, directly or indirectly, noticeably and slightly by an extensive collection of public policies. According to Anderson (2003) public policies in modern, complex society are indeed prevalent Public policies are those actions developed by governmental bodies and officials (Anderson, 2003). However, nongovernmental actors and other factors may influence public policy development. Some special characteristics emanate from being formulated by what political scientist David Easton has called the “authorities” in apolitical system, namely, “elders, paramount chiefs, executives, legislator, judges, administrators, councilors, monarchs and the like. According to his assertion, these are the persons who “engage in the daily affairs of political system,” and take actions that are accepted as binding most of the time by most of the members so long as they act within the limits of their roles.” In simple terms, public policies are actions produced by government officials and its agencies. From this background, this essay seeks to discuss the concept of public policy. To understand the concept better, the paper will first define the word policy then public policy, make an analysis and finally make a conclusion.
A policy is defined as relatively stable, purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors in dealing with problem or matter of concern (Anderson, 2003). It is made in answer to some kind of a problem that needs attention. According to Birkland (2015) a policy is defined as ‘a statement by government-at whatever level- of what it intends to do about a public problem.’ However, lack of these statement can also be an implied statement of policy. Statements like these ones can be found in the country’s constitution, regulations, statutes, common law or case law (court decisions), agency or leadership decisions, or even in changes of the behaviour of the government officials at different levels. For example, section 168 of the penal code stipulates that any person who does an act not authorized by law or omits to discharge a legal duty and thereby cause any common injury, or danger or annoyance, or obstructs or cause inconvenience to the public in the exercise of common rights, commits the misdemeanour termed a common nuisance and shall be liable to imprisonment for one year is a statement of governmental policy to punish those who break the law. The Child Care, Protection and Justice Act of Malawi, (2010) is the statement of governmental policy to protect children from any violent act. Judicial decisions are also statements of policy, for instance, the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, in Mercy James’ adoption case number 28 of 2009 whereby the decision to grant the adoption order became a statement of policy. On the other hand, Birkland (2015) defines a policy as what government chooses not to do and lack of definite statement of policy can be enough evidence of an implicit policy. An example can be from the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi that government has never declared in the Constitution that there is a right to abortion. This assumes that the implicit policy is that there is no right to this assertion despite the fact that other countries like America do express the right to abortion. However, government can pass policies to address the problem in response to abortion policies but these are not treated as maters of right to abortion. Policies take several distinct forms. A policy can be a regulation or a law or a set of laws and regulations that direct a particular matter or problem. This can sound good but there is an incomplete explanation. Anne Schneida and Helen Ingram give a more extensive definition of policy which means that policies are not just regulations and laws because once a rule or a law is made, policies continues to be made as people who implement policies make decisions about who will benefit from the policies and who would not benefit from the same. In short policies are broader than laws or regulations.
On the other hand, public policy is defined as ‘a 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 (Rose, 1976). It is undisputable fact that public policies do not constantly consist of action. Chisinga (2007), argues that inaction can constitute policy as well by looking at what is not done or deliberate attempt not to act. Anderson (1975) defines public policy as ‘when government takes a decision or chooses a course of action in order to solve a social problem and adopts specific strategy for its planning and implementation’. Rose (1975) argues that public policy is best conceived in terms of a process. This is because policy decisions are confined to one level of organization at the top, or at one stage at the outset, but rather something fluid and ever changing (Gilliat, 1984:345). Cochran et al (1999) refer public policy to the actions of government and intentions that determines those actions. While Dye (1992) argues that public policy is whatever government choose to do or not to do. Peters defines public policy as the sum of government activities whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the life of citizens. Similarly, Cochran et al (1995) conclude that public policy consists of political decisions for implementing programs to achieve societal goal.
In analyzing the concept public policy as relatively stable, purposive course of action followed by government in dealing with some problem matter of concern, first, the definition links policy to purposive or goal oriented action rather than unsystematic behaviour or chance occurrences. Here what it means is that public policies are designed to achieve specific goals though these goals are not always achieved. This is because public policies are loosely stated and cloudy in content providing a general direction rather than a precise target for their implementation. Stakeholders may have some differences on how policies can be implemented in order to solve the situation.
Second, public policy links not only to the adoption of general laws and rules but also to subsequent decisions that are intended to enforce or implement the laws or rules. This follows that public policies include judicial decisions made in interpreting the law and administrative rules. These statements are policies.
Third, public policies are developed in response to policy demands, or claims for action or inaction in some public issue made by other actors. In answer to these policy demands, government officials make decisions that give direction to this public policy by enacting statutes, issuing executive orders, publicize administrative rules, and judicial interpretation of laws. These policy statements in turn are formal expression or articulations of public policy.
Fourth, public policy consists of what governments essentially do and not just what they intend to do, or what government officials say they are going to do. This can assessed by looking at the concept of policy output as compared to the concept of outcome. For example, fines meted by traffic police on the road do not actually reduce road accidents. Similarly, long term prison sentences do not actually reduce crime rate. So in this scenario, outputs can be counted while outcomes are impossible to measure.
Fifth, a public policy can be positive or negative depending on how it has been implemented. This is seen when government officials deal with a problem on which action is demanded and this positive policy, but when government officials decide not to do anything to the demands, then this is negative policy.
Finally, public policies, in its positive is grounded on a law and is authoritative, legally coercive quality than policies of private organizations.
In conclusion, this essay has managed to define policy, public policy and analyzed the concept of public policy. In short public policy is what government chooses to do or not to do. Public policies are based on laws and are authoritative in nature.