Public Policy Series – III

Public Policy

By Priyam Agarwalla

There is no precise and universal definition of Public Policy, and there isn’t likely going to be one in the future. Public policy can simply be defined as a response to a particular problem. It is a process of making choices and the action or the outcomes of these decisions which is backed by the coercive powers of the state makes these policies “public” (Birkland 2001). There are other various definitions of public policy – ‘Part of the framework of ideas through which we make sense of the way in which, in different dimensions of our lives, we are governed (Colebatch 2002: 8). And according to Dye, public policy is all about what government does, why does it do and what result does it lead to. A wide array of definitions can be seen with respect to public policy. Fischer defines it as a political agreement on a course of action (or inaction) designed to resolve or mitigate problems on the political agenda. Hence, Public Policy can be seen from two different perspectives.

The first perspective is the authoritative perspective where the government is in charge of everything and it is them who make all the major decisions. This classical view implies that policymaking is a rational process. And here public policy making is considered to be a purely political process as it is the reflection of the priorities and the agendas of the executive. Another perspective is that of the structured interaction. Policy making under this view is considered to be an outcome of the interaction. The role of government is quite different in this view. The government here is not considered to be to the decision maker. Rather it is viewed as space or arena where the interaction amongst the stakeholders takes place and policies are developed as a result. These two perspectives on Public policy brings to light the fact that public policy could go both ways. It need not be all about executives. It should evolve as an interdisciplinary body of knowledge where opinions of all the stakeholders are taken into consideration, government acting as the mediator or regulator instead of an authority. As Mark Considine has noted, the public and private spheres are ‘entwined at every level’, a situation that is ‘always and everywhere the case’ (1994: 4).

Policymaking is an art and the entire policy cycle involves four steps. Without these steps, the Public Policymaking process cannot be considered to be complete. The first step being Agenda setting, where the policymakers identify the problem and select the issue which needs policy intervention. After this comes the stage of policy formulation and decision making. Here the problems, demands, and proposals are taken into consideration and transformed into various government programmes. It also includes considering various other alternatives to resolve a particular issue. After this, comes a very important part of the entire cycle. If the implementation of these programmes and policies do not take place properly and in an effective manner, there is no use in formulating a policy. And the final stage of the policy cycle constitutes the evaluation of the policy implemented. Evaluation is mainly done to understand if the intended outcomes have been achieved or not. And if not, what changes need to brought in to make the policy more effective and efficient. However, evaluation is not related to any specific stage of the policy cycle rather it is embedded in the entire policy-making cycle.

Policy implementation is broadly defined as “what happens between the establishment of an apparent intention on the part of the government to do something or to stop doing something, and the ultimate impact in the world of action” (O’Toole 2000, 266). Making decisions on a particular issue and formulating various policies to solve the identified problems doesn’t ensure that the problem has been taken care of. And it also does not guarantee that the action on the ground will follow the policy maker’s aims and objectives. The stage of the execution or the enforcement of a policy or a programme by a responsible agency or the organization which is usually a part of the government sector is known as implementation. It is a very important and critical stage of the policy cycle as the aims and objectives of the policy designed should be implemented the way it was meant to be. Earlier, implementation wasn’t considered to be a separate stage in the policy-making process. It was rather assumed that government passes the law and that’s where policy-making ends. But slowly the perception changed and implementation became an integral part of the process. However, it is still a top down approach where bureaucrats just implement the policies made without actually taking into consideration the people at the grass root level. This top down approach seems to be highly technocratic. In general top down implementation can be defined as carrying out a policy decision by the executive order or the court decision where the authority is vested in the bodies that seek to produce the desired results (Matland, 1995, 146). The top down approach is a clear cut system of control and command from the government to the projects. Although this approach is a rational and comprehensive approach to planning and has clear and consistent goals—articulated at the top of the hierarchical environment, proper knowledge of pertinent cause and effects, clear hierarchy of authority and has resources as well as capacity to carry out the commands from the top but still it is faced with a lot of criticisms (Elder, 2011, lecture). Top downers may implement the policy with the standards that the citizens do not understand and which might as well overlook their rational preferences. And hence, the top down approach becomes a tactic and not a strategy for implementation (DeLeon and Deleon 2001, 484).

Implementation under the bottom up approach begins with the target groups because they feel that the target groups are the actual implementers of the policy (Matland, 1995, 146). Moreover, this approach also argues against the notion that if the bureaucrats are not given enough autonomy and discretion in the implementation process with respect to the local conditions then the policy is likely to fail (Matland, 1995, 148). The goals, strategies, and activities must be deployed by taking into consideration the people the policy will directly impact. Many people argue that street level bureaucracy would be the best practice for an effective and efficient implementation of a policy (Matland, 1995, 149). The bottom up approach is likely to be more reflective of community interests and is considered to be more realistic, practical and democratic process of implementation (DeLeon and DeLeon 2001, 478). However, this approach also isn’t free of criticisms. People argue that the street level bureaucrats may not be accountable to the people. And they also ignore the fact that the policies are made at the top most level and hence, it reinforces the authority of the bureaucrats. Hence, the authority of the executives is embedded in the entire system itself. Therefore, it can be argued that policymaking should not be seen as a technical exercise of just implementing the policies and programmes made by the authorities. Rather the process should be more intuitive. Implementation is supposed to come from a body of knowledge (epistemology). And epistemology is a field of study in itself which requires some amount of abstraction. Hence, Public policy-making process should be allowed to expand and grow rather than seeing it merely as a process of implementing the predefined rules of the game. If public policy is a more technical exercise within a country there are also possibilities that it creates an imbalance in the country as far as social justice is concerned. The executives might be more inclined towards a particular ideology be it libertarianism, utilitarianism, socialism etc, which might be very different from what the people of the country might desire. Public policy, instead of inclining towards any one of those should be a proper mix of these ideologies which would make it more interdisciplinary and compliant to the needs of the people.

As discussed earlier in the essay, public policy is designed for a specific purpose to solve societal problems. It has a specific goal and objective which is reflected in the statements, programmes, and policies issued by the government. Therefore, public policy acts as a very important governance tool for a developing country like India. India is a land of diversity, where almost all religions of the world are dwelling within the territory, with diverse climatic differences and resources, issues like inequality, an imbalance in growth, conflicts, etc constituting an important part of Indian society. Indian State through its Public aims to bring change in society. The public policy aims to address issues of public concern at large. Public policy is the most effective mechanism to bring change at all levels in the society. Policies are divided into various types on the basis of the needs they address. These typologies were developed by Lowi (1964). He distributes policies in three types, namely- distributive policies redistributive policies, and regulatory policies. Distributive policies are those which consider the distribution of new resources. For example agriculture, social issues, public works, subsidies, taxes etc. The policies which modify the distribution of existing resources are the redistributive policies. Land reform, progressive taxation, welfare policy are the examples of redistributive policies. And the regulatory policies are the ones specifying conditions and constraints for individual or collective behavior. Environmental protection, migration policy, consumer protection are a few examples of regulatory policies. There is one another concept which is known as Wilson’s (1973, 1989, 1995) typology which is based on the cost and benefit of the policies.

It is through these various types of policies the government tries to maintain peace and order in the society. We can imagine the extent to which policies are important for a state to survive. Hence, policy should be embedded in some form of theoretical structure and seek to fulfill some criterion. This theoretical structure can be found in the policy knowledge framework. Policy knowledge framework talks about four criterions that a policy should aim to fulfill. The four of them are Comprehensive Outcomes, Culmination Outcomes, Pareto Optimal Criterion and using a nudge. Comprehensive outcomes are process driven and are mostly related to agency considerations and feasibility criterion. The policy framed should clear about the agency that will be engaging closely with the policy and how are they going to do it. If we take the example of GST, then before implementing this policy the government should be clear about the process in which the GST will roll out. The agency that is the GST council should be inducted in the policy itself. Every minute detail of a policy should be envisaged in the policy right at the time of the conception. Which agencies will be involved, how the taxes will be collected, how the vigilance is going to take place? All of it is process driven. The feasibility of the policy also needs to be taken into consideration while thinking about the comprehensive outcomes. We need to consider if we have enough resources to create separate GST council for this policy. Do we have the efficient and reliable technology to undertake vigilance? Hence, feasibility is also an important part of comprehensive outcomes. In order to achieve these outcomes, both agency considerations and feasibility should go hand in hand. These process driven outcomes should be met.

Culmination outcomes are mostly outcome driven. What these outcomes take into consideration is that whether the desired outcomes have been met. The main objective to implement GST was to generate more revenue from taxes and scrap all other various kinds of taxes. Also to implement a uniform tax system and make the process of paying taxes a little more easily. Hence, culmination outcomes also form a very integral part of the policy-making process.

Because if the desired outcomes aren’t met, then the entire policy-making process proves to be a failure. Therefore, it is very important for the culmination of outcomes to be fulfilled. But processes have to be in place then only culmination outcomes can be met. Another important aspect of the policy knowledge framework is the Pareto optimal criterion. It simply means that the policy should be such that it shouldn’t affect anyone in a negative manner. The policy should make people better off without making anyone worse off. Pareto optimal criterion looks at higher preference satisfaction of ‘A’ at no cost of ‘B’. In the policy-making process, the target matters a lot and it is the responsibility of the policymakers to ensure that policy benefits the person and the people are getting better off naturally. The last criterion that a policy should aim to fulfill is using a nudge. It means that policies should be executed in such a way that the authorities do not have to impose it on the people. Rather people should accept it on their own without being forced for doing it. The policies should be aligned along with the incentives that people are unknowingly drawn to it. It’s like nudging them softly. It is imposing but in a way still not imposing. Nudging is like making people do what you want to without actually forcing them. It is the state’s ability to ensure some form of “Libertarian Paternalism”. These are the four criterions which a policy should strive to fulfill making it a wholesome and intuitive approach towards problem solving in a society.

Public policy making is a highly complex process. Therefore, it is important for every stakeholder to engage closely with each stage of the policy cycle. The fragmentation of power also affects the policy formulation and adoption which is characterized by negotiation and compromise. If the political system is a rather cooperative one then the entire process of policy-making becomes very less challenging. At the same time, we should also keep in mind that the political structures are meant to reduce the complexity of the policy process. A political institution serves such a purpose. However, this might not be the case all the time. Sometimes, the concentration of power with these institutions might lead to public policy failure in an economy. In a country like India, where changes are occurring at various levels, it will be most difficult to respond adequately to the increasingly complex issues of the society unless there are far reaching changes in the political institutions. The emergence of the concept of governance brings into focus a wide range of multi level relationships between government institutions and civil society organizations. Hence, policymaking would adopt a more scientific approach which would open the door to a participatory democracy where citizens can take part in meaningful debates and contest policies that affect them deeply. And for this, it is also important that the policy-making process should not be seen merely as a technical exercise and should rather be embedded in some form of theoretical structure. But what still remains is the question that which actors are the most important in defining a policy problem and adopting a particular policy.
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Considine, M. 1994. Public Policy: A Critical Approach. Macmillan Education Australia.
DeLeon and DeLeon. 2002. “‘What Ever Happened to Policy Implementation? An Alternative Approach,.’” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 4 (12): 467–92.
Dye, Thomas R. n.d. Understanding Public Policy. Fifth edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, [1984] ©1984.
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Priyam Agarwalla is a second year masters student in Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

Featured Image Source : National Academies of Practice

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