What is Public Policy?

In the broadest sense, the definition of “policy” is a consistent and purposeful way of doing something. Individuals, families and businesses can have policies that are private and self governed. The term “public policy” refers to a course of action taken by a government to address a public issue. Public policy is created in the interest of a larger group of people and is the outcome of government processes that include the enactment of laws and regulations, and the allocation of resources. Some of the issues that are addressed by public policy include health, education, social welfare, crime, transportation and international relations.

Individuals and groups commonly attempt to influence public policy through advocacy, education and the formation of special interest organizations. The ability of citizens to shape public policy is defined by a nation’s form of government, with the public in democracies having far more impact on policy than in nations with other types of political systems. In a democracy, policymakers are often faced with competing interest groups who are advocating for opposing policies. For public officials, the formulation of public policy requires the ability to rigorously examine public issues and to implement ethical solutions that support the common good.

Law is a major component of public policy. Specific legislation enacted in the context of a nation’s constitution or international law will determine how a policy is implemented and how services related to the policy are funded. Once a policy has been adopted through legislation, one or more agencies are put into place to enforce that policy.

The concept of public policy can be extended to include the policy decisions of any organization outside of government that addresses public issues, including nonprofit organizations, cultural institutions and religious organizations. Although these organizations are not capable of enacting public laws, they often provide solutions to public policy issues through internal policies that are in keeping with local and national laws. These organizations also use advocacy and education to promote public policy changes that support the goals of their organization.

As an academic discipline, the study of public policy is differentiated from economics or political science in its emphasis on applying theory to practice. Public policy schools provide instruction in policy analysis, political economy, public administration, public affairs and urban planning. In the past, public policy degrees were focused exclusively on the study of national policy. Economic globalization has led to many programs instituting tracks that focus on international policy, especially as it relates to global issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and economic development.