Making Public Policy in Texas
Making Public Policy in Texas
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the five stages in making public policy in Texas
Introduction: The Public Policy Process
Policymaking is a cyclical process. It begins in the problem identification stage with recognition and definition of a significant public problem and an organized call to government action through agenda-setting. In response, the legislative and bureaucratic machinery of government may formulate, adopt, and implement a strategy for addressing the problem. Analysis of policy eﬀectiveness in turn often reveals shortcomings in the formulation or implementation or new problems to add to the policy agenda. The process is a cycle because the evaluation stage should feed back into the earlier stages, informing future decisions about the policy.
The public policy process is often described as a cycle that consists of five stages:
- problem definition
- agenda setting
- policy adoption
Making Public Policy
1. Defining the Problem
The first stage of policymaking is problem identification. During this initial stage, public attention is focused on some public problem or issue, and policymakers respond to these political needs and problems.
Problem identification identifies the issues that merit discussion. The act of problem identification necessitates specifying alternatives. Alternative specification considers solutions to fix the diﬃculty raised in problem identification. For example, government oﬃcials may agree in the problem subphase that the increase in childhood obesity presents a societal problem worthy of government attention.
However, the solution can be complex, and people who otherwise agree might come into conflict over what the best answer is. Alternatives might range from reinvestment in school physical education programs and health education classes, to taking soda and candy machines out of the schools and requiring good nutrition in school lunches.
In the problem identification stage, our ideology—our ideas concepts, and visions about the way society works—plays a critical role in defining public policymaking. Whether a policy is considered "good" or "just" may depend on whether the person connecting with the proposal identifies as a liberal, conservative, libertarian, communitarians, or socialist.
2. Agenda Setting
Agenda setting is the second stage of policymaking. Not all issues make it onto the governmental agenda because there is only so much attention that government can pay. Thus, one of the more important tasks for a policy advocate is to frame his or her issue in a compelling way that raises a persuasive dimension or critical need. For example, health care reform has been attempted on many occasions over the years. One key to making the topic salient has been to frame it in terms of health care access, highlighting the percentage of people who do not have health insurance.
During this key stage, policy formation involves the detailed procedures of passing legislation, as well as making administrative rules and regulations. Agenda setting then takes place in which decisions are made regarding what problems will be discussed, how the problems will be understood, and what concrete measures will be taken to address them. As you may recall from our earlier discussion about interest groups, one of the goals of interest groups is to gain access to policy discussions inside agencies and legislatures; access provides interest groups with the opportunity to help set the institutional agenda.
Agenda setting ends when a given problem has been selected, a solution has been paired with that problem, and the solution goes to the decision makers for a vote. Acid rain provides another nice illustration of agenda setting and the problems and solutions subphases. Acid rain is a widely recognized problem that did not make it on to the governmental policy agenda until Congress passed the Air Quality Act of 1967, long after environmental groups started asking for laws to regulate pollution.
In recent years, the Texas oﬃcial policy agenda has included such items as educational finance, property tax reform, medical malpractice reform, welfare reform, and corrections policy reform.
3. Policy Adoption
The third stage in the policymaking process is policy adoption. Once a proposed policy has been added to the agenda, policy adoption begins. In this policy phase, the elected branches of government typically consider one specific solution to a problem and decide whether to pass it.
Policy is made in a variety of diﬀerent ways. Legislation may be passed and signed into law by the governor, or a state agency may change a rule or regulation.
This stage is the most visible one and usually garners the most press coverage. And yet it may be somewhat anticlimactic; by the time a specific policy proposal (a solution) comes out of agenda setting for a yes/no vote, it can be something of a foregone conclusion that it will pass.
However, the process of policy adoption can be extremely complex. Legislative committees and agency staﬀ may hear testimony and sift through several diﬀerent alternatives to address a problem. They may ask for reports to project the eﬀects of a policy change before making a decision. The judiciary may issue a decision on a legal case that aﬀects the potential policy.
The fourth stage in the policy-making process is implementation. Once adopted, government agencies in the fourth stage begin the task of making the policy work. They establish procedures in accord with the policy, write guidance documents, and issue grants-in-aid to other government bodies. The agencies then carry out the policy as expressed by a legislative act, rule, regulation, or legal decision.
Identifying the appropriate agency to implement a program is crucial at this stage. They must adopt the new policy. Sometimes this requires adjusting budgets in order to accomplish a new task or function, or building new facilities, or developing infrastructure. Some policies are easily enacted, but others are more complex and require significant work. Budgetary policy plays a major role in the implementation stage and could determine the success or failure of a particular public policy.
At a certain point, all public policies must be evaluated for their eﬀectiveness. Evaluation is the fifth stage in the policy-making process, and should be tied directly to the policy’s desired outcomes. In the best-case scenario, evaluation procedures would assess the stated goals of the particular policy against the actual outcomes of the implemented policy. Evaluation essentially asks, “How well did this policy do what we designed it to do?” The answers can sometimes be surprising. In one hotly debated case, the United States funded abstinence-only sex education for teens with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy. A 2011 study published in the journal PLoS One, however, found that abstinence-only education actually increased teen pregnancy rates.
Several diﬀerent groups and persons may take part in evaluating a policy once it has been implemented. Often the agencies that implement the policy will evaluate the results of their actions to determine whether goals have been met. Legislators provide oversight of policy implementation. Through investigative reporting, the media evaluate the success or failure of public policy. Academic institutions and political scientists help evaluate policy through critiquing policy ideas and outcomes, and studying those impacted by policies. Citizens also provide an important evaluative function by responding to policies—and news regarding policies—through political participation.
Closing the loop between problem identification and program evaluation is one of the most challenging problems facing policymakers. Evaluation may reveal a need for revisions in policy, a need for changes in implementation, or even a whole new policy. It may also reveal new problems in need of policy solutions.
Next we will explore key policy areas shaping political life in Texas.
References and Further Reading
Anderson, J. E. (2010). Public Policymaking: An Introduction. Wadsworth.
Jones, B. D. & Baumgartner, F. R. (2005). The Politics of Attention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall & David W. Hall (2011). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. PLoS One.
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Making Public Policy in Texas. Authored by:panOpen. License: CC BY: Attribution