by Ronit Hazarika
Education and literature in the larger field of public policy can broadly be divided into four foci – the study of public policy processes, concerned with how public policy is formulated or comes to be; comparative public policy, which studies the similarities and differences in the stress areas in the domain of public policy across time and geography; public policy analysis, which deals with the how-to problems in policy making, i.e, devising solutions to policy problems; and lastly, policy evaluation, which examines policy interventions and their foreseen and unforeseen effects on human society.
In this summarative paper, the author concerns himself with the third kind of policy studies, that is, public policy analysis, and erects a logical structure which could serve to define public policy, and within which public policy, as a governance tool, should be reasonably and ideally devised. The author parallels charts out a primer of the different theoretical frameworks proposed by experts in the field of policymaking, and how they should define and guide an ‘ideal-type’ policymaking, without making any presuppositions based on ethical philosophy.
I. Defining Public Policy
Different thinkers have put forth different definitions of public policy. Cochran defines public policy as “the actions of government and the intentions that determine those actions.”
Thomas Dye, in his volume Understanding Public Policy, defined it as “Whatever governments choose to do or not to do.” B. Guy Peters in his 1999 handbook on American public policy said that “stated most simply, public policy is the sum of government activities, whether acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence on the life of citizens.”
There have been several other attempts to arrive at a water-tight and all-encompassing definition of public policy. The author wants to describe public policy as “any mode of action undertaken or stance assumed by an arm of the state that is directed at preserving or changing human behaviour amongst a collective of individuals, be it a community, an institution, a citizenry or any other collective, whether as a means to a change, or as an end in itself.”
In the eyes, of the author, this is the broadest definition or public policy that does not contain instances which should not be deemed acts of public policy. In the end, every instance of what our common sense would see as ‘public policy’ will only be able to serve any purpose if some human being’s actions are affected by that policy. If this were not true, then that policy would be but a mere statement- in fact, less than a mere statement, as even statements in themselves have symbolic strength, and affect the behavior of people. Be it the policy to not mine coal reserves to depletion, the policy to not strike first with nuclear warheads, the policy to ban smoking in public places or the policy to not allow too much discretionary power to the governors of states in India, public policy manifests itself as the incentive or disincentive for individuals to act in a certain way, whether isolated or as part of a greater collective/society.
One could wonder what the last condition in the author’s definition of public policy – “. . . . . whether as a means to a change, or as an end in itself” – means; in fact, one could argue that there is no difference between ‘means’ and ‘ends’ here, as the only true end of any public policy is public wellness, and any form of public wellness is ‘caused’ by action or inaction.
As an example, not smoking could be considered an end in itself, but it could also be seen as a ‘means’ to better health and greater longevity. Therefore, whether public health promotion campaigns or laws against smoking passed by the state result in the means to an ideal situation, or manifest as an ideal situation itself, is up for philosophical debate.
II. Codification of public policy
Our definition of public policy began as “any mode of action undertaken or stance assumed by an arm of the state that is directed at preserving or changing human behavior. . .” An important question to ask here is – how does one know if an action undertaken in the name of any arms of a state is representative of a certain ‘mode of action’ adopted by the state? In other words, how does one know what the ‘mode of action’ of a state is, if that mode is not publicly, officially declared by the state or its concerned arm?
There are many modes of action, and many assumed stances of the state that are not necessarily put on paper or made explicit in any other way. As an example, while the Indian state is strictly secular on paper (except personal law), it often approaches issues of communal and societal conflict in a way that does not depend solely on a strict detachment between religious beliefs and the laws of the state (as true secularism would prescribe), but also relies on balanced concessions and consultations with communities for maintaining the peace. In other words, the Indian state, in its approach to communal conflict resolution to arrive at a solution that, while solving the problem (or not), is not compatible with true secularism.
Here, this approach of consultative and concessionary conflict resolution, which is a form of public policy, is a ‘mode of action’ that is not explicit but only made obvious as a recurring pattern. Thus, this public policy could be said to have a ‘low level of codification’.
This low level of codification exists because state institutions are, in the end, composed of human bureaucrats and agents who are not isolated from the general social milieu. Thus, there is always a social dimension to these institutions which may not be reflected in a standard operating procedure manual, regulatory code, statutory law, or the constitution, but are, for all intents and purposes, widely assumed ‘modes of action’. Of course, there is a grey area here – just how many bureaucrats have to conform to a certain ‘extra-procedural’ behavioral pattern for that pattern to be deemed a ‘mode of action’ or ‘public policy’ assumed by the state? There is no clear answer. But it helps to recognize the fact that low-level coded policies exist in every state on earth.
Public policy can come from an arm of the state, as any arm will have at least a minimal degree of independent authority which it would use to select a certain mode of action. Even a government-controlled electricity board will have the leeway to decide which grids to keep electrified and which to shut down on summer weekends with higher power demand. Even this could count as public policy.
Broadly, public policy is often made by each pillar of a democratic state, assuming the state is constitutionally a democracy with separation of powers. The executive can always issue executive orders. The legislature can formulate and pass laws. Even the judiciary does pronounce its rulings in a completely neutral fashion, and often keeps the well being of the citizens in mind when interpreting the constitution and other state laws. If given discretionary powers, the judiciary can do more than that. It is also sometimes the case that the judiciary needs to interpret the ‘intent’ of another arm of the state when deciding on a case. Thus, even the judiciary needs insights from public policy.
III. Behavioral typology of public policy
Going back once again to our definition, public policy is “. . . directed at preserving or changing human behavior amongst a collective of individuals, be it a community, an institution, a citizenry or any other collective . . .”
How does public policy do that? The different ways in which public policy can incentivize, disincentivize or reorient human behavior are commonly compartmentalized as ‘policy tools’. The literature on the typology of policy tools flourished in the last decade of the 20th century and continues to garner interest in public policy analysis. Most identified policy tools are common among the different fashions of policy tool compartmentalizations. For example, public policy can take the form of a law that creates positive or negative freedoms or creates constraints and obligations. Public policy can also be a service offered by the state, such as providing public goods and services, or even participatory programmes. Public policy can also manifest as loan schemes or the creation of special economic zones. Each of these ‘types’ and different ‘tools’, in that they change people’s behavior using different forms of incentivization or disincentivization.
B. Guy Peters identifies law, services, money, taxes, and suasion as the five policy tools the shapes of which public policy can assume. Peters, later with Charles Levine and Frank Thompson further compartmentalized ‘money’ into transfer payments, intergovernmental grants, and contracts with private firms.
James Anderson, in his Public Policy making, provides two frameworks for categorizing policy tools. The broader categorization simply divides public policy into two categories – substantive policy and procedural policy. Substantive policies are public policies which directly lead to changes in human society – in substantive policies, the concerned instrument or arm of the state is but a means to the end of socio-economic change. On the other hand, procedural policies are those which seek to preserve, alter or reform the structure and/or functioning of a small part of a larger whole of the state itself. Thus these policies concern themselves with the procedures of the state’s institutions.
In his second typology of policy tools, Anderson identifies ‘directive power’ (law), services, transfer benefits, contracts, general expenditures, market operations, taxes, loans, subsidies, sanctions, inspection, licensing and informal procedures as the different forms which public policy can assume.
These typological frameworks obviously have a lot common between them. Some frameworks are broader in their categories, while others are more specific. However, every framework has categories which are not mutually exclusive, and some have significant overlaps. As an example, in Anderson’s second typology, ‘licensing’ – the requirement of a license to engage in a particular activity – could also be categorized as a ‘law’. In the typology of Levine et al, ‘loans’ as a policy tool could be considered a form of ‘service provision’ – after all, private banks are considered ‘service providers’ in economics and the world of finance.
Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, in their Policy Design For Democracy, lay out a policy typology that is less technical and more philosophically compartmentalized. They categorize policy tools as authority tools, hortatory tools, capacity-building tools and policy-learning tools. Authority tools are those which take the form of a law that expands or restricts freedom of action. Hortatory tools are those which aim to persuade people to engage in what the state sees as desirable behavior. Capacity building tools are those which increase or decrease the productivity of individuals and thus society. Learning tools are a meta-tool, used to assess and understand the different aspects of a policy problem. Here too there are categorical overlaps, as capacity-building tools can also be an authoritative tool.
There is difficulty in neatly compartmentalizing policy tools. This challenge can only be surmounted by foundational distinctions between policy tools, without resorting to technicalities (such as what constitutes a ‘service’ as opposed to ‘capacity building’). The author proposes that foundationally, public policy can take the following elementary forms. Elementary forms as opposed to composite forms, because seldom is a public policy solely in a single elementary form, and virtually all public policies are a combination of the following elements –
1. Laws, defined as the increase or decrease of legal constraints. Laws do not require the creation of bureaucratic institutions or infrastructure, save for the purpose of preventing, identifying and penalizing violation of constraints. Ex- licensing, income tax, laws about trespassing on property
2. Programmes, defined as structural facilities and services made available to people such that people are incentivized to participate in the programme and gain from it. Programmes require the creation of bureaucratic institutions and not just increase or decrease of legal constraints, although no programme can be bereft of them. Programmes must also produce some output in the form of good or service that participants can avail. Ex- Social security, transfer benefits, tax-funded health insurance, capacity-building, construction of highway networks etc.
3. Suasion, defined as campaigns undertaken by the government to persuade people to exhibit certain behavioral patterns deemed preferable. Suasion also requires bureaucratic action but does not produce any good or service that any ‘participants’ can necessarily avail. Rather, suasion exists as an appeal, rhetoric or reason addressed to the masses. Ex- Anti-smoking campaigns, family planning awareness, etc.
As mentioned before, the majority of public policies exist as a combination of the three forms. Laws are often directed at changing the constraints encountered during participation in programmes. For example, a law could decrease the amount of premium a customer of government-funded health insurance is required to pay. Laws, on the other hand, also often require programmes. If we take the example of government-funded health insurance and make it mandatory for every citizen to participate in the insurance scheme, then it is no longer just a programme with laws, but a law that forces a programme onto the citizens.
Programmes also need suasion for successful implementation and wide coverage. India’s UIDAI programme needed suasion strategies to convince people to participate in it, and awareness about the benefits of Aadhaar enrolment is responsible for its success.
Note that if suasion involves the spreading of knowledge about anything, such as the dangers of not washing hands, then suasion could also be considered a programme, as that knowledge could be considered a public service that the public consumes. Thus, there can only be a pure form of suasion where the state tells people what they already know but tend to disregard or valueless.
IV. Causality of Public Policies
Every public policy is meant to change or preserve something in the human society. When the policies are designed, they are designed assuming some chain of causality through which the desired change/end is achieved. When the government hires more scientists into defense research, it does so under the assumption that greater hiring will lead to greater productivity and innovation in indigenous defense technology, which is, in this case, the desired end. However, no action or mode of action has simple, linear, singular causal chains. Every action, including actions by the state, initiates several chains of causality, which is why we talk of ‘causal networks’ and not just ‘causal chains’. Causal networks could be seen as an organic whole of multiple causal chains. In the defense research example, greater hiring not only leads to greater innovation but also greater fiscal expenditure, as well as lower unemployment, lesser defense exports, greater net exports, diminishing trade relations and dependencies, as well as changes in the zeitgeist of the nation.
Ideal public policy-making involves anticipating the causal network to the fullest extent feasible. Of course, public policy deals in behavioral changes, and since the social sciences are not a deterministic science (yet), it is nigh impossible to mathematically predetermine all the consequences of public policies. Policy making, thus, currently involves imprecise ‘mental models’ used to picture the causal networks that a policy would initiate. It can scarcely be denied, that higher precision is a desirable quality in the predictive power behind policy making, but technological and epistemological limitations keep human beings from achieving this predictive power.
This is why the concept of bounded rationality is a central issue in public policy making. No agent or policy planner/designer has perfect knowledge or information, which is why there will always be limitations to how well the consequences of policies can be predicted, both qualitatively (that is, what consequences can there be) and quantitatively (how great or small the consequences are in their severity/efficacy).
There are, nonetheless, theoretical structures that serve as heuristics for wholesome and prudent policy making, such as the ‘logical framework approach’ and ‘theory of change’. The latter is a loser and technically liberal alternative to the former.
The logical framework approach for public policy analysis was devised by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1969. This framework dissects any public policy into the different stages in its causal chains, namely – inputs, activity, outputs, and outcome. This dissection allows for a critical inspection of the assumed causal chains by the policy designers that should lead to the desired change. Whether the causal chain stands up to scrutiny depends upon the strength of the ‘assumptions’ underlying any stage in the causal chain. As an example, the no-detention policy in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is intended to result in universal elementary education. However, this chain of causality has several stages to it. The no-detention policy is expected to lead to both lower dropouts and higher incoming admissions in elementary education. This, in turn, is expected to lead to higher gross elementary enrollment ratio. This, finally, is expected to lead to universal elementary education. However, there are assumptions at every stage here. We simply assume that the no-detention policy would lead to lower dropouts. We also assume that the higher gross enrollment ration would translate into universal elementary education, which need not be the case – in fact learning outcomes have declined since 2009 when the no-detention policy was brought into force along with the Right To Education Act.
The logical framework approach also emphasizes the measurability of the success of each stage through reliable indicators. These indicators ideally allow the state to understand where and how a public policy is faltering, and to add to, remove or redesign the policy accordingly.
V. Normativities of public policy
The philosophical underpinnings of public policy can vary. Public policy is always a little consequentialist, but it may not be completely utilitarian. Other typological frameworks by public policy scholars reflect the motivational and consequentialist aspects of public policy, most notably the policy typologies of Theodore Lowi and James Wilson. Both typologies focus on the political dynamics behind public policies, and how the dynamics differ depending on proto-game theoretical models of winners and losers.
Lowi’s policy typology looks at public policy from the perspective of coercion – how strong is coercion, and how wide is it in the application. Depending on where a policy stands on these two scales, public policies can be of four types – distributive, with low strength and spread of coercion; constituent, with low strength and high spread of coercion; regulative, with high strength and low spread of coercion; and redistributive, with high strength and high spread of coercion. Distributive policies, because of the ease of pushing them through, often lead to logrolling, where legislators agree to push each other’s policies. Redistributive, on the other hand, involves a lot of antagonism and conflict of interest, and are therefore hard to push through.
Wilson’s policy typology rests on a similar matrix, except it assumes a more direct cost-benefit lens, where the two scales are the degree of distribution of the cost of the policy, and the degree of distribution of benefit of the policy. Thus, there is interest group politics, which deal in policies with concentrated costs as well as benefits; client politics, which leads to dispersed costs of policy but concentrated benefits; entrepreneurial politics, which deals in policies with concentrated costs and dispersed benefits; and finally majoritarian politics, where both the costs and benefits of policies are dispersed.
Public policies can have different moral-philosophical foundations, but it can hardly be argued that public policy should ideally be created keeping its consequences in mind, irrespective of the hierarchy of priority of consequences. Moreover, public policy is always a combination of public services, states of legal freedoms and constraints, and persuasive tactics, all geared towards getting people, society, and institutions to exhibit desired behaviors. Keeping these truths in mind is of utmost importance when analyzing candidate public policy schemas, as they set the standards against which any public policy is to be identified and judged, no matter the belief system.
- Cochran, Clarke E. et al., American Public Policy: An Introduction (6th ed). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- Dye, Thomas R. Understanding Public Policy. 7th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1992).
- Charles L. Cochran and Eloise F. Malone, Public Policy: Perspectives and Choices (New York: McGraw Hill, 1995).
- B. Guy Peters, American Public Policy: Promise and Performance (Chappaqua, NY: Chatham House/Seven Rivers, 1999)
- Charles H. Levine, B. Guy Peters, and Frank J. Thompson, Public Administration: Challenges, Choices, Consequences (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown, 1990)
- Anne Larason Schneider and Helen Ingram, Policy Design for Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 2.
- Kahneman, Daniel. “Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics” The American Economic Review, 93(5), (December 2003) pp. 1449-1475,
- Lowi, Theodore. The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States, 2d ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979).
- Wilson, James Q. Bureaucracy (New York: Basic Books, 1989)
The author, Ronit Hazarika, is a first-year student of Master of Arts in Public Policy at Jindal School of Public Policy.
Featured Image Source: California Urban Forests Council