What is Public Policy?

Public Policy as Outcomes

Governments rarely want to keep their policies a secret. Elected ocials want to be able to take credit for the things they have done to help their constituents, and their opponents are all too willing to cast blame when policy initiatives fail. We can therefore think of policy as the formal expression of what elected or appointed ocials are trying to accomplish. In passing the HCERA (2010), Congress declared its policy through an act that directed how it would appropriate money. The president can also implement or change policy through an executive order, which oers instructions about how to implement law under his or her discretion. Finally, policy changes can come as a result of court actions or opinions, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which formally ended school segregation in the United States.

Typically, elected and even high-ranking appointed ocials lack either the specific expertise or tools needed to successfully create and implement public policy on their own. They turn instead to the vast government bureaucracy to provide policy guidance. For example, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act (1972), it dictated that steps should be taken to improve water quality throughout the country. But it ultimately left it to the bureaucracy to figure out exactly how ‘clean’ water needed to be. In doing so, Congress provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with discretion to determine how much pollution is allowed in U.S. waterways.

There is one more way of thinking about policy outcomes: in terms of winners and losers. Almost by definition, public policy promotes certain types of behavior while punishing others. So, the individuals or corporations that a policy favors are most likely to benefit, or win, whereas those the policy ignores or punishes are likely to lose. Even the best-intended policies can have unintended consequences and may even ultimately harm someone, if only those who must pay for the policy through higher taxes.

For example, a policy designed to encourage students to go to liberal arts colleges may cause trade school enrollment to decline. Strategies to promote diversity in higher education may make it more dicult for qualified white or male applicants to get accepted into competitive programs. Eorts to clean up drinking water supplies may make companies less competitive and cost employees their livelihood. Even something that seems to help everyone, such as promoting charitable giving through tax incentives, runs the risk of lowering tax revenues from the rich (who contribute a greater share of their income to charity) and shifting tax burdens to the poor (who must spend a higher share of their income to achieve a desired standard of living). And while policy pronouncements and bureaucratic actions are certainly meant to rationalize policy, it is whether a given policy helps or hurts constituents (or is perceived to do so) that ultimately determines how voters will react toward the government in future elections.