Public Policy: Problem, Interest, Policy & Analysis


Basic Concepts in Public Policy: Problem, Interest, Policy & Analysis

Meaning of Public Problem

Defining a public problem is a plausible way of commencing a discourse on Public Policy Analysis. This is because, in the words of John Dewey, a problem well defined is a problem half-solved.” Again, the famous Albert Einstein asserted “if I had an hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Therefore, in Public PolicyAnalysis, the key question is to find out what the policy problem is. Defining a policy problem is an act of conceptualizing collective problems or challenges to be dealt with. It involves mobilizing others in a specific way to look at problems and solutions.

A policy problem definition has three main components: description of influential conditions and interests, history of prior governmental action or inaction, and persuasive argument, bearing in mind that a public problem is a condition that at least some people in a society view as being undesirable.

Public problems can originate in endless ways and require different policy responses (such as regulations, subsidies, Import quotas, and laws) on the local, national, or international level.

The public problems that influence public policy making can be of economic, social, or political nature (Hill, 2005). Each system is influenced by different public problems and issues, and has different stakeholders; as such, each requires different public policy.

In public policy making, numerous individuals, corporations, non-profit organizations and interest groups compete and collaborate to influence policymakers to act in a particular way that suits their interest.

Meaning of Public Interest

Public interest, according to the Random House Dictionary, is the welfare or well-being of the general public; commonwealth, It may be an appeal or relevance to the general populace. However, what is in the ‘public interest’ is incapable of precise definition as there is no single and immutable public interest. In some ways it is easier to make general statements about what is not in the public interest than what is in the public interest. The public interest refers to the "common well-being" or "general welfare". The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself. While nearly everyone claims that aiding the common well-being or general welfare is positive, there is little, if any, consensus on what exactly constitutes the public interest.

The public interest can mean different things or be applied in different ways in different circumstances.

The kinds of conflicts that often arise are: Where a decision would advance the interests of one group, sector or geographical division of the community at the expense of the interests of another.  Such a decision can be in the public interest in certain circumstances. For example, granting resident parking permits near popular destinations may be in the public interest even though it inconveniences non-residents, because it helps to ensure residents are not overly inconvenienced by people visiting nearby areas.

Between two government organizations responsible for advancing different causes which both provide some benefit to the public. For example, it is likely that in many respects a body responsible for protecting the natural environment and a body responsible for harvesting forestry products have equally valid but conflicting views about the public interest.

Where a decision requires a balancing of one public interest consideration over another; such as the public interest in providing access to government documents against the public interest in preserving the security of sensitive information (relating to law enforcement, for example).

It would be true to say that what is in the public interest often depends on the particular circumstance, and each circumstance raises a range of considerations that often conflict. Sometimes conflicting public interest considerations need to be balanced.

Economist Lok Sang Ho defines the public interest as the "ex ante welfare of the representative individual" (Ho, 2011). Public interest has been considered as the core of "democratic theories of government” and often paired with two other concepts, "convenience" and "necessity" (Napoli, 2001), even though in the political sphere, it is used by many to justify a wide range of actions and proposals.

However, it is often unclear (even to those using the term) what they mean by this, and there can be a natural suspicion that the phrase may be used as a smokescreen to garner support for something that is actually in the advocate's own interests.

Summarily, the concept of the ‘public interest’ has been described as referring to considerations affecting the good order and functioning of the community and government affairs, for the well-being of citizens.

The expression ‘for the common good’ is also used.


Meaning of Public Policy

Public Policy is a purpose course of actions or inaction undertaken by an actor or set of actors in dealing with a particular problem or matter of concern.

Public Policy is a proposed course of action of a person, group or government within environment providing opportunities and obstacles which the policy was proposed to utilize and overcome in an effort to reach a goal or realize an objective or purpose (Carl J. Friedrrich).

To Thomas R. Dye, Public Policy is whatever government chooses to do or not to do. Thus, Public Policy is a course of government action or inaction in response to public problems. It is associated with formally approved policy goals and means, as well as the regulations and practices that implement programmes. Public policy as “deciding at any time or place what objectives and substantive measures should be chosen in order to deal with a particular problem”. Chandler and Plano (1988) define public policy as “the strategic use of resources to alleviate national problems or governmental concerns”. Freeman and Sherwoods (1968) posit that it is the public response to the interest in improving the human conditions.

In these definitions there is divergence between what governments decide to do and what they actually do. Public policy is a guide which government has designed for direction and practice in certain problem areas.

Public policy is the principled guide to action taken by the administrative executive branches of the state with regard to a class of issues, in a manner consistent with law and institutional customs. The foundation of public policy is composed of national constitutional laws and regulations. Government actions and process Public policy making can be characterized as a dynamic, complex, and interactive system through which public problems are identified and countered by creating new public policy or by reforming existing public policy (John, 1998).

Emanating from the myriad definitions above is that the concept of public policy as a relatively stable, purpose course of action followed by government in dealing with some problem or matter of concern are the following points: 

First the definitions link policy to purpose or goal-oriented action rather than to random behavior or chance occurrences because in modern political systems, Public policies do not just happen. They are designed to accomplish specified goals or product definite results, although these are not always achieved. Second, policies consist of courses or patterns of action taken over time by governmental officials rather than their separate, discrete decisions. 

Third, public policies emerge in response to policy demands, or those claims for action or inaction on some public issue made by other actors – private citizens, group representatives, or legislators and other public officials-upon government officials and agencies.

In response to policy demands, public officials make decisions that give content and direction to public policy. These decisions may enact statutes, issue executive orders or edicts, promulgate administrative rules, or make judicial interpretations of laws.


Meaning of Public Policy Analysis

Policy analysis is a technique used in public administration to enable civil servants to examine and evaluate the available options to implement the goals of elected officials. It has been defined as the process of determining which of various policies will achieve a given set of goals in light of the relations between the policies and the goals.

Policy analysis can be divided into two major fields:

Analysis of existing policy, which is analytical and descriptive i.e. it attempts to explain policies and their development. Analysis for new policy, which is prescriptive i.e., it is involved with formulating policies and proposals. For example: to improve social welfare. The areas of interest and the purpose of analysis determine what types of analysis are conducted. A combination of two kinds of policy analyses together with programme evaluation would be defined as policy studies (Hambrick, et al. 1998).

As a technique to examine and evaluate the available options to implement the goals of elected officials, public policy is used in the analysis of existing policy, which is analytical and descriptive i.e., it attempts to explain policies and their development.

Public policy analysis involves the study of the causes, processes, formation, implementation and consequences of public policy. It entails the description, explanation and prescription of particular policy choices and content, the determination of strategies or techniques for optimal policy-making. It uses collected data to systematically explain, describe and prescribe public policies with the aid of social science methods, theories and approaches.

Public Policy Analysis can be conceptualized as the study of the formation, implementation and evaluation of public policy, the values of policy-makers, the environment of the policy-making system, the cost of policy alternatives and the study of policies for improving policy-making.

Its goal is to improve the basis of policy- making and generate relevant information needed to resolve social problems. Public policy analysis is aimed at improving the basis for public policy making.

The study of public policy analysis is necessary to all public and private citizens for better understanding of government decision and programmes. Better knowledge of public policies is enhanced by better knowledge of basic concepts in public policy such as public problem, public interest, public policy and public policy analysis.

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