Why Public Policy Studies Matter

Written by Flávia | Student - July 24, 2020, 10:20 a.m. #Politics and Government

Each month, we choose a great student essay to add to our online collection. This month, we chose Flavia's essay on the importance of studying public policy. Read all about it:

Public policy can be defined as the actions of the government and the intentions that define those actions (Cochran et al., ), the outcome of the struggle in government over who gets what (Clarke), the political decisions for implementing programs to achieve societal goals (Malone), the sum of government activities, whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the life of the citizens (Peters), a statement by the government at whatever level and in whatever form of what it intends to do; a decision on what not to do is also [an implicit] policy (Birkland). One of the most straightforward definitions for public policy is that offered by Thomas Dye (1992), according to which public policy is whatever governments choose to do or not to do.

In any case, from these definitions we can draw some preliminary conclusions: i) a public policy exists to tackle a problem or goal; ii) decisions in public policy are to be made by the government, even if at different hierarchical levels; iii) there is “struggle” or intense negotiation among stakeholders when defining a public policy; iv) the activities that form the implementation can be done by the government itself or through third parties; v) the idea of “who gets what” implies some form of distribution (of income, benefits, products, services); v) choosing not to do something is also a form of public policy.

Birkland says that to be a student of public policy is to be an interdisciplinary researcher. Sociology, history, economics, public administration, psychology—there are innumerable possibilities of field interactions. The main challenge is to use profitably the insights offered by the many disciplines that work, in various ways, with public policy.

As a field of study, theories in public policy have progressed especially quickly in the past 25 or 30 years. These theories are influential because scholars have found them to be useful in explaining important aspects of the public policy process (Birkland, 2018). Since the 2010s, public policy making is increasingly goal-oriented, aiming for measurable results and goals, and decision-centric, focusing on choices that must be made immediately. Mass communications and technological changes such as the widespread availability of the Internet have caused the public policy system to become more complex and interconnected.

Among the five to eight theoretical frameworks for public policy (depending on the author) we have a common ground on a few key points: i) policymaking is complex and involves a lot of ideas and policy actors; ii) decision-makers are rational, from citizens to the highest people in the interest groups and in the government; iii) people and societies create governmental organizations as a way to better manage information, but some problems and ideas are addressed ahead of other problems and ideas; iv) participants in the policy process are motivated to make what they consider the best policy that will allow them to wield power and influence; v) participation in the policy process is more or less open to broad participation, but some interests have more power and influence over the agenda than others; vi) information in the process of formulating policy is incomplete, in the sense that the ambiguous nature of policy problems and ideas allows participants to strategically manipulate information in order to persuade people to adopt particular types of policies.

Public policy can be considered a mix of the evidence brought by rational, scientific, and often quantitative policy analysis, plus the values and belief systems of the participants in the process, the structure of the process itself, and the distribution of power within the structure. However, results of “scientific” public policy are often abandoned when other rhetorical tools seem to work better. Another aspect is that even if a social scientist proves that one public policy is superior to another, there can be many interests at stake and the government may decide on following a different path from the theoretically optimal one.

A relatively new field is the so called “data-driven policy”, which is designed by a government based on existing data, evidence, rational analysis, and use of information technology to crystallize problems and highlight effective solutions . Data-driven policymaking aims to make use of data and collaborate with citizens to co-create policy. Policymakers can make use of new data sources and technological developments like artificial intelligence to gain new insights and make policy decisions, which contribute to societal development.

It is important to note, however, that not all types of policies can be simply quantifiable such as by using the rigorous evaluation studies that are possible through, say, randomized controlled trials. Policies concerned with human rights, public acceptability, or social justice may require other evidence than what randomized trials provide, or may require moral philosophical reasoning in addition to mathematical proofs of an intervention effect . This is not to say that these fields are exempt from an evidence-based approach.

In a nutshell, bringing high quality and quantitative information to the decision maker has a great impact. Not all types of public policy will be benefited from numbers, and even if they do, let’s remind ourselves that public policy decisions are mostly made by politicians which, according to an old saying, use science the way drunks use lampposts – for support, not for illumination.

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