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Public Policy 101: What Is Public Policy?


Public policies are everywhere in today’s world, but their ubiquity is also why their definition is often elusive and the analysis of public policies tends to be complex. The Public Policy 101 series offers the reader several tools of analysis that help make sense of the complexity of public policies. This 101 series comprises eight different articles, each focusing on a different aspect, which should provide the reader with a framework of analysis to better understand the complex world of public policy-making.

  1. What Is Public Policy?

  2. The Stages Of The Policy Process

  3. Rationalist And Constructivist Ontology In Public Policy

  4. An Overview Of The Theories Of The Policy Process

  5. The Public Policy Actors

  6. The Policy Subsystem

  7. Beyond National Public Policy

  8. New Approaches In Public Policy Studies

What is public policy?

Public policy influences all aspects of people’s lives. Decisions regarding whether to lower tax rates, regulate environmental pollution, revise the educational curriculum, offer subsidies to families and businesses, or restrict immigrants’ entry into the country are all public policies. But like many other terms in political science – such as ‘democracy’ and ‘power’ – the notion of public policy is ubiquitous but difficult to define. To understand why below are some definitions that have been given over the past fifty years.

According to Dye (1972: 2), public policy is ‘anything a government chooses to do or not do.’ Jenkins (1978) followed by suggesting that public policy is a ‘set of interrelated decisions taken by a political actor or group of actors concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them within a specified situation.’ A third definition is provided by Anderson (1984: 3), according to whom the public policy is a ‘purposive course of action followed by an actor or a set of actors in dealing with a problem.’ Building on these insights, Ramesh and Howlett (2003: 163) conclude that public policies are any ‘decisions by governments to retain the status quo [just as much as] decisions to alter it.

More recently, John (2013: 1) suggests that public policy refers to those public actions that ‘decision makers, working within or close to the machinery of government and other political institutions, produce […] that are intended to have an impact outside the political system.’ Mintrom and Williams (2018: 4) understand public policies as ‘any action taken by governments that represents previously agreed responses to specified circumstances.’ According to Howlett (2018: 17), public policy-making ‘results from the interactions of policy-makers in the exercise of power, legitimate or otherwise.’ As the last example, Cairney (2019: 2) defines public policy as ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcome.

Devolved Parliament, Banksy (2009).
Figure 1: Devolved Parliament, Banksy (2009). Source: Wikipedia

The six definitions above are far from providing an exhaustive list but they are more than enough to identify some key characteristics. The first characteristic, which is already clear in Dye’s (1972) definition, is that public policy concerns government action (whether local, regional, national, or supranational). As such, any decision stemming from firms, non-governmental organisations, think tanks or social movements cannot be defined as public policy. Nevertheless, non-governmental actors can still strongly influence public policy through lobbying, whereby these actors attempt to see their interests reflected in the policy decisions (see Chari et al., 2019).

The second characteristic is the issue of power (Howlett, 2018). It is impossible to carry out governmental decisions without holding power. In this context, power can refer to one of three different aspects. First, power can refer to the ability to make another political actor do something that otherwise they would not have done (Dahl, 1957). In this sense, legislative majorities hold power over the minorities in that they can pass public policy proposals into law. Secondly, power can refer to the ability of governments to shape the decision agenda (Bachrach & Baratz, 1962). Governments can choose which topics to tackle (or not tackle). Finally, power also refers to the ability of political actors to shape other actors’ minds (Lukes, 2004). Political actors can convince other actors and the public alike that some matters are worth addressing. Propaganda represents the clearest example of this ability. Hence, public policy is the result of how governmental actors wield and exercise power.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (front) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (back). Both have important agenda-setting powers in their respective chambers
Figure 2: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (front) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (back). Both have important agenda-setting powers in their respective chambers. Source: Democrat and Chronicle

The third characteristic is a consequence of the exercise of power. As Anderson’s (1984) definition makes clear, policy problems are perceptual in nature. Government action must be linked with the perception, real or otherwise, of the existence of a problem requiring such action. But not all actors may perceive a situation as problematic: some would say that high tax rates hamper entrepreneurial activity, whereas to others it is a way for the state to offer better services. Thus, some scholars claim that in truth public policy is not about finding a solution to a problem, but finding a problem that fits a previously mustered solution (e.g. a terrorist attack may be used as an excuse to advance more stringent regulations about public surveillance, which had been advocated before the attack, but which found little support until then).

 The idea of perception captured in the painting Relativity, MC Escher
Figure 3: The idea of perception captured in the painting Relativity, MC Escher (1953). Source: Arthive

Fourthly, public policy reflects specified circumstances (Jenkins, 1978; Mintrom & Williams, 2018). That is, public policy solutions must conform to the problem at hand. This has a two-fold implication. First, the means and goals must be commensurate to and appropriate for the goal. A government would not address a systemic economic crisis by expanding civil rights, as this would not be an appropriate response. Likewise, a fiscal stimulus that barely addresses the need of one firm, let alone the entire national economy, cannot be said to be commensurate with the scale of the problem. Secondly, this entails that public policy is rarely restricted to one decision, but is instead a ‘set of interrelated decisions’ as Jenkins (1978) put it. Hence, in a health crisis situation, the government would take a series of closely linked decisions, such as the construction of health facilities, the recruitment of professional personnel, the financing of health-related programmes, and so forth.

In fifth place, as John (2013) highlights, public policy must have an effect beyond the political system. A policy decision that only impacts the legislators can hardly be said to be directed towards the improvement of the public good. Even decisions that seemingly only affect political actors such as the financing of political parties or the regulation of interest group activity have wider implications for civil society since they concern political participation writ large (on this, see Chari et al., 2019).

Finally, Cairney’s (2019) definition of public policy underscores its process-like nature. Public policy is not only the ultimate outcome of policy change (or the retention of the status quo in the case of non-action), but it also involves all the steps that come before that, starting with the commitment on the government’s part to alter existing policies. This broad definition is important because one cannot understand the decisions that policy-makers take without first understanding whether or not they are even signalling their intention to alter current policies. At the same time, however, their initial commitment may not be reflected in the effective policy outputs (i.e. the content of the decision) or the policy outcomes (i.e. the effects of said decision). Hence, it is useful to analyse not only what governments do, but also what they say.

PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer giving a conclusionary address in Turin (1971), showing that what leaders say is important
Figure 4: PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer giving a conclusionary address in Turin (1971), showing that what leaders say is important. Source: Il Corriere della Sera

As Cairney (2016) notes, although the definition of public policy may seem trivial given the similarity in the wording used by the authors above, it matters a great deal. Depending on the preferred definition, answers may significantly differ. If the focus rests only on studying variation in the final policy decisions, variation in the processes behind it could be missed. If the issue of problem definition is assumed to be ontologically irrefutable (i.e. problems are not a social construct, but they ‘just exist’ and are the same for everyone), understanding certain policy choices becomes more difficult.

Different aspects of the policy process may prompt considering different additional questions beyond what public policy is. Some examples are: is public policy-making just what policy-makers do or is it also what they say? Does public policy include an evaluation of the effects of the policy decisions? Who really makes public policy? Hence, depending on their goals, analysts and researchers must be clear about what they focus on and what they can instead afford to ignore (see Cairney, 2016).

In conclusion, public policy is a complex, dynamic process involving a plurality of governmental and non-governmental actors alike, power differentials between these actors, and immediate effects on civil society. That said, public policy scholars make use of a set of heuristic devices, theories, and methodological tools that help make the process of public policy-making more understandable. These will be the subject of the coming articles in this 101 series on public policy.


  • Anderson, C. (1984). Public Policy-Making: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Bachrach, P. & Baratz, M. S. (1962). Decisions and Nondecisions: An Analytical Framework. American Political Science Review, 56(2): 632-642.

  • Cairney, P. (2016). Policy in 500 Words: what is public policy and why does it matter? Available at:

  • Cairney, P. (2019). Understanding Public Policy. 2nd edition. London: Red Globe Press.

  • Chari, R., Hogan, J., Murphy, G. & Crepaz, M. (2019). Regulating Lobbying. A Global Comparison 2nd edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  • Dahl, R. A. (1957). The concept of power. Behavioral Science, 2(3): 201-215.

  • Dye, T. R. (1972). Understanding Public Policy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

  • Howlett, M. (2018). Designing Public Policies. Principles and Instruments. 2nd edition. London & New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Jenkins, W. I. (1978). Policy Analysis: A Political and Organizational Perspective. London: Martin Robertson.

  • John, P. (2013). Analyzing Public Policy. 2nd edition. London & New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Lukes, S. (2004). Power. A Radical View. 2nd edition. London: Red Globe Press.

  • Mintrom, M. & Williams, C. (2018). Public policy debate and the rise of policy analysis. In: Araral Jr., E., Fritzen, S., Howlett, M., Ramesh, M. and Wu X. (Eds.). Routledge Handbook of Public Policy. London & New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Ramesh, M. & Howlett M. (2003). Studying Public Policy. Policy Cycles and Policy Subsystems. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image References


May 08, 2023

This series was great! I'm working on my dissertation proposal and this was a good overview of topics covered in my classes.

The only critique I have is in regard to navigating the website. I figured it out, but it wasn't immediately clear how to get to other readings in the series. Could you add links or arrows to get to guide users to the next reading?


Oct 07, 2022

I have found this very helpful in my research. Thank you


Feb 28, 2022

Good article! It was interesting to see how the definition of "public policy" changed over time, and the serious implications that a simple rewording could cause.


Feb 24, 2022

Very interesting 101 series!

I was planing to enroll to Public Policy course for with a very costly fee but thanks to you now ı can learn more about it!

Great work Mr.Schito, looking forward for further article series!

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Marco Schito

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