Public Policy Process — An Essay

Niteesh Shanbog
5 min readJun 4, 2022


Thomas Dye defined public policy as “whatever the governments choose to do or not to do.” While governments worldwide have governed for centuries, the field of public policy as a discipline has seen rigorous academic focus since the 1950s, especially in the United States of America. A wide range of scholarly engagement broadened the frontiers of what public policy is and what public policy can be. Intellectual engagement in policy analysis is geared towards achieving social equity, economic efficiency, and political stability. Policy analysis here includes studies on policy content, policy process, and policy outputs.

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The policy process begins with agenda-setting. Agenda setting gives rise to group competition amongst policy advocates who bat in favor of possible alternatives¹. Often political power decides the endurance of an agenda. The agenda-setting process facilitates group mobilization, and occasional power deficits in elite groups may sometimes allow less privileged groups to influence policy discourse. If the agenda-setting tells the policymakers where to go, the policy formulation is all about how to get there. The agenda-setting stage is relatively open to all the spectrums of the society, from the media to the political infrastructure to the general public. The policy formulation stage, on the other hand, depends on the more specialist knowledge offered by policy practitioners², whether they are located inside the government or outside³.

Policy implementation is arguably an essential piece of the policy process puzzle. Implementation is what happens between the establishment of an idea and the perceived outcome. Policy implementation studies have two significant schools of thought, i.e., the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach. The top-down approach popularised by Michael Lipsky argues that there always exists a central authoritative prime mover and that minimizing the communication distortion between the principal and his subordinates results in successful implementation. The top-down approach reeks of hierarchial optimism, which, more often than not, does not translate well in real scenarios. The bottom-up approach, on the other hand, is motivated by collective interest. The bottom-up approach is a result of the democratic process being more popular, realistic, and representative.

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Scholarly engagement in public policy has resulted in several schools of thought regarding an ideal public policy. New intellectual capacity has developed in developing frameworks, theories, and models for policymaking. The elite theory posits that the oft sought-after pluralism in society is not actually seen in reality. Public policy by and large mirrors the interest of the ruling elite, only offering a facade of interactiveness and equity. Group theorists, however, disagree with this view. According to them, public policy is the reality of a constant struggle between opposing groups. It is a political theory that suggests that policymaking is a result of interaction between groups, and plural societies have a more vibrant policy environment than homogenous ones.

Proponents of Rational Choice Theory (RCT) tried to explain the phenomenon of public policy as a consequence of identifiable rational individual actions. Since the steps are rational, there are no black boxes. However, the RCT fails to explain many phenomena like the ‘voter’s paradox. A single vote will have a negligible effect on the outcome of an election. Rationalists should therefore abstain from voting in an election. People, however, do vote. RCT thus fails when the actors involved follow non-consequentialist prescriptive beliefs. The voter votes even though his votes do not do anything of note. RCT also fails when the actors are not influenced by self-interest. A more objective outcome of the rational choice theory is the evidence-based policymaking style which assumes that most of the ethical and moral dilemmas facing policymakers can be solved by looking at the ‘best possible pieces of evidence’. Such policy practitioners depend on empirical research on the impact of x on y and look to frame policies from context-neutral evidence. Such empirical evidence has a more excellent value than personal experiences or opinions. While this looks to be a decent approach, the problem lies in the lack of an established context-neutral body of evidence available to policymakers. Much of the available evidence is a reconstructed reality designed to support almost any opinion.

The long-term policy environment is explained by Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, which states there are long-term incremental changes in public policy which is relatively stable and is often punctuated by large exogenous shocks, which leads to explosive policy changes. Dramatic changes in procedures for nuclear safety, pesticides can be explained by this theory. Punctuations in policy outlook are often held back by the inertia of existing advocacy groups, legacy institutions, and bounded rationality. The existence of advocacy coalitions and the support they receive for propagating their belief systems also decide the policy environment. The ability to form advocacy coalitions is also an essential indicator of the direction of a public policy.

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Public policy is also highly dependent on institutions and actors. Institutions can be both internal and external. While policymaking falls in the domain of internal actors like policy practitioners and elected lawmakers, they gain specialist knowledge from external institutions like think tanks and policy organizations. With the drive for more consultative policymaking, the lines between internal and external policy institutes have blurred. Policy think tanks now offer specialist consultations and are sometimes in charge of drawing up entire policy documents for governments. The bureaucracy also plays a vital role in the entire policy process. They have an essential role in identifying the challenges of the population and informing the policymaker. When not in an ideal consultative process, the bureaucracy should ensure interactive aspects of public policy are incorporated into the process. Perhaps, the most crucial role of the bureaucracy is in ensuring effective implementation.

The policy process as a whole is dynamic. Any evaluation of the policy will also have to consider the changes throughout the policy process. Policy evaluation studies have also evolved to accommodate the multiple actors involved in the policy process. Validation of public policy is as essential a part of the policy process as formulation and implementation. Scholarly engagement in public policy has created a body of intellectual knowledge that has vastly improved this interdisciplinary field of study.



Niteesh Shanbog

Public Policy | Electrical Engineer