What is Public Policy?

Public Policy Defined

One approach to thinking about public policy is to see it as the broad strategy the government uses to do its job. More formally, it is the relatively stable set of purposive governmental actions that address matters of concern to some part of society. This description is useful in that it helps to explain both what public policy is and what it isn’t. First, public policy is a guide to legislative action that is more or less fixed for long periods of time, not just short-term fixes or single legislative acts. Policy also doesn’t happen by accident, and it is rarely formed simply as the result of the campaign promises of a single elected ocial, even the governor.

Public policy can be complicated and controversial; deciding what works best and how to allocate resources to achieve a policy goal can involve multiple trade- os. While elected ocials are often important in shaping policy, most policy outcomes are the result of considerable debate, compromise, and refinement that happen over years and are finalized only after input from multiple institutions within government as well as from interest groups and the public.

Consider the example of government health care expansion. A follower of politics in the news media may come away thinking the reforms implemented in 2010 were as sudden as they were sweeping, having been developed in the final weeks before they were enacted. The reality is that expanding health care access by the government had actually been a priority of the Democratic Party for several decades. What may have seemed like a policy developed over a period of months was in fact formed after years of analysis, reflection upon existing policy, and even trial implementation of similar types of programs at the state level.

Remember that the policies of the federal government often have a direct consequence for Texas. Texas led other states in an eort to combat the federal government's eorts to take over the healthcare industry by the Obama administration's program. Even before passage of the Aordable Care Act (ACA; 2010), which expanded health care coverage to millions and of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (HCERA; 2010), more than 50 percent of all healthcare expenditures in the United States already came from federal government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Several House and Senate members from both parties along with First Lady Hillary Clinton had proposed significant expansions in federal health care policy during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, providing a number of dierent options for any eventual health care overhaul. Much of what became the ACA was drawn from proposals originally developed at the state level, by none other than Obama’s 2012 Republican presidential opponent Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

This story illustrates an important aspect of policy, Republicans are not all the same. Republicans in Texas tend to be more conservative than Republicans in other parts of the country. This simply means that policy differences or preferences can occur within a political party. Likewise, Democrats in Texas tend to be more conservative than other parts of the country.

In addition to being thoughtful and generally stable, public policy deals with issues of concern to some large segment of society, as opposed to matters of interest only to individuals or a small group of people. Governments frequently interact with individual actors like citizens, corporations, or other countries. They may even pass highly specialized pieces of legislation, known as private bills, which confer specific privileges on individual entities. But public policy covers only those issues that are of interest to larger segments of society or that directly or indirectly aect society as a whole. Paying o the loans of a specific individual would not be public policy, but creating a process for loan forgiveness available to certain types of borrowers (such as those who provide a public service by becoming teachers) would certainly rise to the level of public policy.

A final important characteristic of public policy is that it is more than just the actions of government; it also includes the behaviors or outcomes that government action creates. Policy can even be made when government refuses to act in ways that would change the status quo when circumstances or public opinion begin to shift. For example, much of the debate over gun control policy

in the United States has centered on the unwillingness of Congress to act, even in the face of public opinion that supports some changes to gun control policy. In fact, one of the last major changes occurred in 2004, when lawmakers’ inaction resulted in the expiration of a piece of legislation known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994). Of course, this is relevant to Texas given the culture for freedom and self defense.