Policy Making Cycle and Theory


Policy Making Cycle and Theory

Meaning of Public Policy 

Public policy has been variably defined. In majority of cases, differences in definitions are semantic than substantive. The Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English defines policy as “a plan or course of action in directing affairs, as chosen by a political party, government, Business Company, etc”. Sharkansky (1975:4) defines it as “important activities of government”. Simons (1974) define it as “an indication of an intention, a guide to action encompassing vales which set priorities and relations between government societies”.

Freeman and Sherwoods define it as “the public response to the interest in improving the human conditions”. Mackinney and define it as “what happen to people as a consequence of what the government does”. The convergence point of these definitions is that public policy is “what” and “how” of government activities. It is purposeful statements, written or oral, aimed at solving a particular problem or problems. Public policy is the guide or framework, government has designed to direction and practices in certain problem areas.


Policy Making Process 

Policy making is the process by which the government or enterprise develops or formulates and implements an effective strategy to meet desired objectives. Strategy in this context is the unified comprehensive plan that is developed to reach these objectives.Public policy  process can be classified into five stages, as illustrated in figure (1) below:

Five (5) Policy making  process or stages

However, Anderson, Brady and Bullock, (1978: 8) have suggested a model for public policy process, which made of six stages:


Policy Formation Stage


This involves a situation where human needs, deprivation or dissatisfaction appear that must be addressed. If enough people believe the nature of the problem is such that government should respond, it than becomes a public rather than a private problem. Public problems involve large numbers of people and have broad-ranging effects including consequences for people not directly involved such as national minimum wage. Thus problem identification entails the demand for action to resolve a problem.



These are problems among many, which receive the government serious attention. Not all problems get policy agenda stage. Those that do reach there, get there by a variety of routes.


Approaches to  Agenda Setting 

There are three approaches to agenda setting in a democratic society.

1. LET IT HAPPEN APPROACH: Here government takes a relatively passive role but maintains channels of access and communication so that those affected can be heard. This approach has its problems as the success depends on many of the principles of group theory, which states that people will define its own interests, organize and seek access, involve others in support of their cause; influence decision-making, monitor implementation and so on.

2. ENCOURAGE IT TO HAPPEN APPROACH: Here, government reaches out to people in defining and articulating their problems. The emphasis here is that government equips people to participate not identifying and defining problems for them.

3. MAKE IT HAPPEN APPROACH: In this approach, government plays an active part in defining problem and setting goals. In other words, government defines problems, set priorities and establishes goals with the two other approaches as well. However, one drawback with this system is that it places enormous burden on government. Out of these three approaches, “make it happen” approach is predominant in example, government decision-makers try to make it happen” in foreign issues. They try to define the problems set the priorities than domestic issues some critics also feel that deference establishments are influenced by certain basic industries, hence decision-makers “let it happen” that is allow such industries to define the problems and set the priorities.

In spite of these classifications, agenda setting approaches are not mutually exclusive. The breakdown of agenda setting into three approaches is to assist analysts understand government action on individual public problems and facilitate comparisons between issues. Whether a problem gets on the public policy agenda or not depends on the power, stature and number of people in the interest group political leadership influence agenda setting. The office of the president in Nigeria plays a great role in this regard. Beside these, approaches, crisis, events, such as wars and depressions as well as protests and demonstrations put problems on the policy agenda.


Policy Formulation Stage

This involves the development of pertinent and acceptable proposed courses of action for dealing with public problems. Policy formulation in Nigeria is often done by the president and his immediate advisers, other members of the executive branch, career and appointed administrative officials, specially appointed committees and commissions and legislators, who introduce bills for consideration by the national assembly.


Types of Formulation

Many types of formulation can be identified depending on the criteria for classification. However, the most interesting and useful basis for identifies the nature of decision-making.

Three types can be identified

a) Routine formulation: A repetitive and essentially changeless process of reformulating similar proposals within an issue area that has a well- established place on the agenda of government.

b) Analogous formulation: Treating a new problem by relying on what was done in developing proposals for similar problems in the past i.e. searching for analogies.

c) Creative formulation: Treating any problem with an essentially unprecedented proposal one, which represents a break with past practice. However, it is sometimes to see creative formulation government as many proposals are normally modified along the way towards past practices during the implementation stage.

Policy formulation process includes the following:

(i)The identification of the policy issues/problems

(ii)Specification of objectives/targets

(iii)Development of options/strategies

(iv)Selection of preferred option/strategies

(v) Policy decision-making

(vi)Design of implementation strategy.

(vii) Policy review and reformulation.

The conception of the problems could be identification of the policy issues/problems against the background of the peoples’ needs and societal problems. Problems have to be perceived, interpreted and defined. The distribution of social problems can be identified by the use of sample survey technique for data and data processing capacity of computers.

The process of policy formulation requires wide consultation prior to the initiation of policy and involvement of stakeholders, particularly labor unions, the organized private sector, the civil society and lower ties of government, legislative and executive arms of government and so on.


Policy Adoption Stage

Legitimating of public policy is the fourth stage. This process means having a particular proposal authorized. Formulators do not think only of problems and how to solve them, but whether the course of action is feasible getting it authorized. Decision or choices of policy requires some authoritative ratification as an aspect of the principle of public accountability. While decision may be effectively reached at one level, they will often be authorized and confirmed at another. Therefore, some strategic considerations are directed toward the legitimization of process – building support for a proposed course of action, maintaining support held previously, deciding where compromises can be made; calculating when and where to make the strongest play and controlling information flow to advantages.

This is often done by the notion of majority lobby building in legislature. In other words, a course of action is legitimate when a majority in both houses of the legislature (National Assembly) approves and the chief Executive affixes his signature to the measure. So, given the necessity for building majority in a given course of action, formulators of policies must consider all factors involved in its legitimating process. However, the most formal adoption strategy is one of proposal, legislative approval and Presidential (Executive) signature. Although, there are other adoption strategies that exist in government.


Policy Implementation

Policy implementation is the process of assembling resources (including people), allocating resources and utilizing resources (operations), in order to achieve policy objectives. The administrative agencies are the primary implementers of public policy, but the judiciary and legislature are also involved. The legislature may over-rule the decision of the executive by two-third majority, while the Courts interpret statutes and administrative rules and regulations. Agencies also make “administrative laws” through delegated legislative authority by the legislature when implementing statutes passed by the congress or National Assembly. The application of a public policy passed by the Legislature can change the nature of the policy itself, as implementation often affects policy content.

Policy Monitoring Stage

This is the last stage of the policy process. It involves an attempt to determine whether a policy has actually worked. It is essential to monitor formulated policies during implementation. Monitoring involves the assessment of progress on policies, programmes and projects in comparison with what was initially planned. Its object is the detection of deviations, so that corrective measures could be applied. Evaluation, on the other hand, is concerned more with results of a policy or programme. It tries to determine the relevance, effectiveness and impact of policy and programme activities in the light of their objectives. It is also concerned with the efficiency with which programmes are implemented. Such an evaluation can lead to additional policy formulation to correct deficiencies. Anderson, Brady and Bullock, (1978) categorized evaluation in two ways:

a.  Political evaluation to assess the political feasibility of the policy;

b. Systematic evaluation seeks to objectively measure the impact of the policies and determine how well objectives are actually accomplished. Such an evaluation focuses on the effects which a policy has on the problem to which it is directed.


Political System Theory 

Public policy may be viewed as the response of a political system to demands arising from its environment. The political system, as defined by Easton, (1965) is composed of those identifiable and interrelated institutions and activities in a society that make authoritative decisions (or allocations of values) that are binding on society. In puts into the political system from the environment consist of demands and supports. The environment consists of all those conditions and events external to the boundaries of the political system. Demands are the claims made by individuals and groups on the political system for action to satisfy their interests. Support is rendered when groups and individuals abide by election results, pay taxes, obey law, and otherwise accept the decisions and actions of the authoritative political system made in response to demands.

These authoritative allocations of values constitute public policy. The concept of feedback indicates that public policies (or outputs) may subsequently alter the environment and the demands generated therein, as well as the character of the political system itself. Policy outputs may produce new demands, which lead to further policy outputs, and so on in a continuing, and never ending flow of public policy.

Political system theory is useful in understanding the policy-making process and its value to policy analysis lies in the questions that it asks:

a) What are the important dimensions of the environment that generate demands upon the political system?

b) What are significant characteristics of the political system that enable it to transform demands into public policy and to preserve itself over time?

c) How do environmental inputs affect the character of the political system?

d) How do the characteristics of the political system affect the content of public policy?

e) How do environmental inputs affect the content of public policy?

f) Finally, how does public policy affect, through feedback, the environment and the character of the political system?

The usefulness of systems theory for the study of public policy analysis is limited by its highly general nature. It does not say much concerning how decisions are made and policy is developed within the “black box” called that political system. Nonetheless, systems theory is a useful aid in organizing inquiry into policy formation. However, the usefulness of the system model is limited due to several factors. First, this model is criticized for employing the value-laden techniques of welfare economics, which are based on the maximization of a clearly defined “social welfare function”. The missing ingredients in the systems approach are the “power, personnel and institutions” of policy making.

In examining these, there is need to note that decision-makers are strongly constrained by economic factors in the environment of the political system. Secondly, the model also ignores an important element of the policy process, namely, that the policy makers (including institutions) have also a considerable potential in influencing the environment within which they operate. The traditional input-output model would see the decision-making system as “facilitative” and value-free rather than “causative” that is as a completely neutral structure. In other words, structure variations in the systems are found to have no direct casual effect on public policy.

Finally, the extent to which the environment, both internal and external is said to have an influence on the policy-making process is determined by the values and ideologies held by the decision-makers in the system. It suggests that policy-making involves not only the policy content but also the policy-makers perceptions and values. The values held by the policy-makers are fundamentally assumed to be crucial in understanding the policy alternatives that are made.



According to the group theory of politics, public policy is the product of the group struggle. As one writer states: “what may be called public policy is the equilibrium research in this (group) struggle at any given moment, and it represents a balance which the contending factors or groups constantly strive to weight in their favor”. Group theory rests on the contention that interaction and struggle among groups in the central fact of political life. A group is a collection of individuals that may, on the basis of shared attitudes or interests, make claims upon other groups in society. It becomes a political interest group “when it makes a claim through or upon any of the institutions of government. And of course, many groups do just that. The individual is significant in politics only as he is a participant in, or a representative of groups. It is through groups that individuals seek to secure their political preferences.

Public policy, at any given time, will reflect the interest of dominant groups. As groups gain and lose power and influence, public policy will be altered in favour of the interests of those losing influence. Group theory, while focusing attention on one of the major dynamic elements in policy formation, especially in pluralist societies, such as the United States, seems both to overstate the importance of groups and to understate the independent and creative role that public officials play in the policy process. Indeed, many groups have been generated by public policy.

The American farm bureau federation, which developed around the agricultural extension programme is a notable example, as is the National welfare rights organization. Public officials also may acquire a stake in particular programmes and act as an interest group in support of their continuance. Finally, we should note that it is rather misleading and inefficient to try to explain politics or policy formation in terms of group struggle without giving attention to the many other factors for example, ideas and institutions that abound. This sort of reductionist explanation should be avoided.



In this approach, public policy can be regarded as the values and preferences of the governing elites. The essential argument of the elite theory is that it is not the people or the “masses” who determine public policy through their demands and action, rather, public policy is decided by ruling elite and effected by public officials and agencies. Dye and Zeigler, (1981) in the “Irony of Democracy” provide a summary of the elite theory:

(i) Society is divided into the few who have power and the many that do not. Only this small number of privileged persons allocate values for society, the masses do no decide public policy;

(ii) The few who govern are typical of the masses who are governed. The elites are drawn disproportionately from the upper socio-economic strata of society;

(iii) Movement of the non-elite to elite positions must be slow and continuous to maintain stability and avoid revolution. Only the non-elite who have accepted the basic elite consensus can be admitted to governing circles;

(iv) The elites share a consensus on the basic values of the social system and the preservation of the system;

(v) Public policy does not reflect demands of the masses but rather the prevailing values of the elite. Changes in public policy will be incremental changes permit responses to events that threaten a social system with a minimum of alteration or dislocation of the system;

(vi) Active members of the elites are subject to relatively little direct influence from apathetic masses. The elites influence the masses more than masses influence the elite.

So state, the elite theory is a rather provocative theory of policy formation. Policy is the product of the elite, reflecting their values and serving their ends, one of which may be a desire to provide for the welfare of the masses. Thus, elite theory does focus our attention on the role of leadership in policy formation and on the fact that, in any political system, a few govern the many. However, whether the elite rule, and determine policy, with little influence by the masses is a difficult proposition to handle.



The study of government institutions is one of the oldest of political science. The approach focuses on the formal or structural aspects of an institution and can be adopted in policy analysis. An institution is a set of regularized patterns of human behavior that persist over time. Some people, unsophisticated, of-course, seem to equate institutions with the physical structures in which they exist. It is their differing sets of behavior, which we often call rules, structures and the like, that can affect decision-making and the content of public policy. Rules and structural arrangements are usually not neutral in their impact, rather, they tend to favor some interests in society over others, some policy results rather than others. Public policy is formulated, implemented and enforced by government institutions.

Government institutions give legal authority to policies and can legally impose sanctions on violators of its policies. As such, there is a close relationship between public policy and governmental institutions. It is not surprising, then, that political scientists would focus on the study of governmental structures and institutions. Institutionalism, with its focus on the legal and structural aspects can be applied in policy analysis. The structures and institutions and their arrangements and can have a significant impact on public policy. Traditionally, the focus of study was the description of government structures and institutions. The study of linkage between government structures and policy outcomes remained largely unanalyzed and neglected.

The value of the institutional approach to policy analysis lies in asking what relationships exist between institutional arrangements and the content of public policy and also in investigating these relationships in a comparative manner. It would not be correct to assume that a particular change in institutional structure would bring about changes in public policy. Without investigating the actual relationship between structure and policy, it is difficult to assess the impact of institutional arrangements on public policies.



This is similar in some ways to the systems theory. But instead of looking at policy outputs as consequences of environmental inputs, it focuses on the process or procedure of policy formulation. There are identifiable patterns of political activities or processes which often culminate in the formulation of public policies. The policy processes are as follow:

a. Policy formation

b. Agenda setting

c.  Policy formulation

d. Policy enactment

e. Policy implementation and

f.   Policy evaluation


The approach is cyclical. However, it should be noted that a change in the process of policy making may not bring about changes in the content of policies. It appears that social, political, economic and technological constraints on policy makers in developing countries are so many that changing either the formal or informal processes of decision making may or may not change the content of public policy.


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