Governments make decisions that affect the welfare of their citizens. These decisions are implemented in the form of laws, regulations, executive orders, court decisions, and even the government budget called public policy. Today people expect government to do a great many things for them. There is hardly any personal or societal problem for which some group will not demand a government solution. This paper provides a general guide of what we call policy. Policy is often associated simply with legislation and regulation, but in reality, it encompasses a wide variety of activities. Therefore, this essay seeks to explain the meaning of public policy.
BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
In the late 1940s and 1950s in the United States of America, Harold D. Lasswell, approached the study of public policy called policy sciences which grew out as an academic discipline (Moran & Goodin, 2006). The main focus of the policy science was on the severe application of sciences on the issue affecting government, following the widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of government at national level in particular. For instance, the unjustified military procurement and the regulated economy that were poorly coped with as the current challenge in Washington (Moran & Goodin, 2006). In the year 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States of America, he shifted in focus from “public administration” to “public policy” as his key innovation that required training in policy analysts who could inform decision makers about the consequences of alternative policy choices (Moran & Goodin).
It is not an easy task, being a multidisciplinary branch of social science, for scholars to come up with a single agreed exact definition of public policy. The word public policy is a combination of two words, namely; public and policy. In general, public is the opposite of private which means something that concerns people. For instance, safety is a public thing that is connected with people (oxford Dictionary, 1987). On the other hand, policy is defined as a purposive course of action that an individual or group consistently follows in dealing with a problem, for instance; public transportation or consumer protection (Anderson, 2015).
Although there is no universal accepted definition of what institutes public policy in the contemporary world. Many scholars have attempted to describe public policy from different directions, such as;
According to Chinsinga (2002) public policy is a relatively stable, purposeful course of action taken by government or public actors in addressing social problems. These social problems or issues could be housing, education, welfare, unemployment, and inflation just to mention a few. However, public policy do not always involve action. Inaction can constitute policy as well. This should not be surprising because much of political activities is concerned with maintaining the status quo. On the other hand, policy as inaction is much more difficult to identify and analyze than policy as action. For instance, a Member of Parliament may decide to put a bill to make abortion legal in the National Assembly, currently abortion is illegal.
Furthermore, Dye, (1972) states that public policy is whatever governments choose to do or not to do. This means that government is responsible for a number of things such as; regulation of conflict within the society, organization of society to carry on conflict with other societies, to distribute a great variety of symbolic rewards and material services to members of society, and to extract money from society in the form of taxes.
Despite the presence of these diverse observations, Friedrich (1976) states that public policy is a proposed course of action of a person, group, or government within a given environment providing opportunities and obstacles which the policy was proposed to utilize and overcome in an effort to reach a goal or realize an objective or purpose.
In addition, Stone, (1997) explained that public policy is the relationship of the government unit to the specific field of political environment in a given administrative system. For example, executive orders thus the adjustment of the prices of subsidized fertilizer from K900 to K500 during the Democratic Progressive Party era, and Free Primary Education policy initiated by United Democratic Front regime in 1994 during its campaign as a response to the problem of high illiteracy level among the youth who were unable to pay for Primary Education.
In agreement to other scholars, Jenkins, (1978) said that public policy is a set of inter-related decisions taken by a political actor or group of actors concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them within a specified situation where those decisions should in principle be within the power of those actors to achieve. As a result, these policies clearly spell out the programs of the government. For example, government may formulate and implement a number of policies such as; access to clean water, good health, high education attainment, decent and affordable housing to the society.
Upon further understanding of the term public policy, Bates and Eldredge, (1980) defined it as statement that provide a guide for decision- making by members of the organization charged with the responsibility of operating the organization as a system. For instance, rules, norms, and prescriptions should be translated into action which later address the needs of the intended recipients in the society.
Hogwood and Gunn, (1984) further stipulates that public policy is a pattern of related decision to which many circumstances and personal, group and organizational influences have contributed. Therefore, the outcome of policies requires to be studied where possible compared and contrasted with policy- makers’ intentions. For example, do longer prison terms reduce crime rates? However for a policy to be considered as public policy, it must, have been generated or processed within the framework of governmental procedures.
According to Brooks, (1989) public policy is the broad framework of ideas and values within which decisions are taken and action, or inaction is pursued by governments in relation to some issue or problems. For example, interpretation of laws, funding priorities, and social control of behavior.
In view of the discussion on the meaning of public policy. It shows that public policies are governmental decisions. These decisions need through and well planned pattern to achieve intended purpose.