By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify types of policymakers in different issue areas
- Describe the public policy process
Many Americans were concerned when Congress began debating the ACA. As the program took shape, some people felt the changes it proposed were being debated too hastily, would be implemented too quickly, or would summarily give the government control over an important piece of the U.S. economy—the health care industry. Ironically, the government had been heavily engaged in providing health care for decades. More than 50 percent of all health care dollars spent were being spent by the U.S. government well before the ACA was enacted. As you have already learned, Medicare was created decades earlier. Despite protesters’ resistance to government involvement in health care, there is no keeping government out of Medicare; the government IS Medicare.
What many did not realize is that few if any of the proposals that eventually became part of the ACA were original. While the country was worried about problems like terrorism, the economy, and conflicts over gay rights, armies of individuals were debating the best ways to fix the nation’s health care delivery. Two important but overlapping groups defended their preferred policy changes: policy advocates and policy analysts.
Public Policy Defined
One approach to thinking about public policy is to see it as the broad strategy government uses to do its job. More formally, it is the relatively stable set of purposive governmental actions that address matters of concern to some part of society. This description is useful in that it helps to explain both what public policy is and what it isn’t. First, public policy is a guide to legislative action that is more or less fixed for long periods of time, not just short-term fixes or single legislative acts. Policy also doesn’t happen by accident, and it is rarely formed simply as the result of the campaign promises of a single elected official, even the president. While elected officials are often important in shaping policy, most policy outcomes are the result of considerable debate, compromise, and refinement that happen over years and are finalized only after input from multiple institutions within government as well as from interest groups and the public.
In 2010, members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) demonstrate against a local zoo. As policy advocates, PETA’s members often publicize their position on how animals should be treated.
Take a minute to think of a policy change you believe would improve some condition in the United States. Now ask yourself this: “Why do I want to change this policy?” Are you motivated by a desire for justice? Do you feel the policy change would improve your life or that of members of your community? Is your sense of morality motivating you to change the status quo? Would your profession be helped? Do you feel that changing the policy might raise your status?
Most people have some policy position or issue they would like to see altered. One of the reasons the news media are so enduring is that citizens have a range of opinions on public policy, and they are very interested in debating how a given change would improve their lives or the country’s. But despite their interests, most people do little more than vote or occasionally contribute to a political campaign. A few people, however, become policy advocates by actively working to propose or maintain public policy.
In addition to being thoughtful and generally stable, public policy deals with issues of concern to some large segment of society, as opposed to matters of interest only to individuals or a small group of people. Governments frequently interact with individual actors like citizens, corporations, or other countries. They may even pass highly specialized pieces of legislation, known as private bills, which confer specific privileges on individual entities. But public policy covers only those issues that are of interest to larger segments of society or that directly or indirectly affect society as a whole. Paying off the loans of a specific individual would not be public policy, but creating a process for loan forgiveness available to certain types of borrowers (such as those who provide a public service by becoming teachers) would certainly rise to the level of public policy.
One way to think about policy advocates is to recognize that they hold a normative position on an issue, that is, they have a conviction about what should or ought to be done. The best public policy, in their view, is one that accomplishes a specific goal or outcome. For this reason, advocates often begin with an objective and then try to shape or create proposals that help them accomplish that goal. Facts, evidence, and analysis are important tools for convincing policymakers or the general public of the benefits of their proposals. Private citizens often find themselves in advocacy positions, particularly if they are required to take on leadership roles in their private lives or in their organizations. The most effective advocates are usually hired professionals who form lobbying groups or think tanks to promote their agenda.
First Lady Michelle Obama shows her AARP membership card on her fiftieth birthday in January 2014. AARP is a major policy advocate for older people and retirees.
A lobbying group that frequently takes on advocacy roles is AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). AARP’s primary job is to convince the government to provide more public resources and services to senior citizens, often through regulatory or redistributive politics. Chief among its goals are lower health care costs and the safety of Social Security pension payments. These aims put AARP in the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition, since Democrats have historically been stronger advocates for Medicare’s creation and expansion. In 2002, for instance, Democrats and Republicans were debating a major change to Medicare. The Democratic Party supported expanding Medicare to include free or low-cost prescription drugs, while the Republicans preferred a plan that would require seniors to purchase drug insurance through a private insurer. The government would subsidize costs, but many seniors would still have substantial out-of-pocket expenses. To the surprise of many, AARP supported the Republican proposal.
While Democrats argued that their position would have provided a better deal for individuals, AARP reasoned that the Republican plan had a much better chance of passing. The Republicans controlled the House and looked likely to reclaim control of the Senate in the upcoming election. Then-president George W. Bush was a Republican and would almost certainly have vetoed the Democratic approach. AARP’s support for the legislation helped shore up support for Republicans in the 2002 midterm election and also help convince a number of moderate Democrats to support the bill (with some changes), which passed despite apparent public disapproval. AARP had done its job as an advocate for seniors by creating a new benefit it hoped could later be expanded, rather than fighting for an extreme position that would have left it with nothing.
Not all policy advocates are as willing to compromise their positions. It is much easier for a group like AARP to compromise over the amount of money seniors will receive, for instance, than it is for an evangelical religious group to compromise over issues like abortion, or for civil rights groups to accept something less than equality. Nor are women’s rights groups likely to accept pay inequality as it currently exists. It is easier to compromise over financial issues than over our individual views of morality or social justice.
A second approach to creating public policy is a bit more objective. Rather than starting with what ought to happen and seeking ways to make it so, policy analysts try to identify all the possible choices available to a decision maker and then gauge their impacts if implemented. The goal of the analyst isn’t really to encourage the implementation of any of the options; rather, it is to make sure decision makers are fully informed about the implications of the decisions they do make.
Understanding the financial and other costs and benefits of policy choices requires analysts to make strategic guesses about how the public and governmental actors will respond. For example, when policymakers are considering changes to health care policy, one very important question is how many people will participate. If very few people had chosen to take advantage of the new health care plans available under the ACA marketplace, it would have been significantly cheaper than advocates proposed, but it also would have failed to accomplish the key goal of increasing the number of insured. But if people who currently have insurance had dropped it to take advantage of ACA’s subsidies, the program’s costs would have skyrocketed with very little real benefit to public health. Similarly, had all states chosen to create their own marketplaces, the cost and complexity of ACA’s implementation would have been greatly reduced.
Because advocates have an incentive to understate costs and overstate benefits, policy analysis tends to be a highly politicized aspect of government. It is critical for policymakers and voters that policy analysts provide the most accurate analysis possible. A number of independent or semi-independent think tanks have sprung up in Washington, DC, to provide assessments of policy options. Most businesses or trade organizations also employ their own policy-analysis wings to help them understand proposed changes or even offer some of their own. Some of these try to be as impartial as possible. Most, however, have a known bias toward policy advocacy. The Cato Institute, for example, is well known and highly respected policy analysis group that both liberal and conservative politicians have turned to when considering policy options. But the Cato Institute has a known libertarian bias; most of the problems it selects for analysis have the potential for private sector solutions. This means its analysts tend to include the rosiest assumptions of economic growth when considering tax cuts and to overestimate the costs of public sector proposals.
The RAND Corporation has conducted objective policy analysis for corporate, nonprofit, and government clients since the mid-twentieth century. What are some of the policy areas it has explored?
Both the Congress and the president have tried to reduce the bias in policy analysis by creating their own theoretically nonpartisan policy branches. In Congress, the best known of these is the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO. Authorized in the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, the CBO was formally created in 1975 as a way of increasing Congress’s independence from the executive branch. The CBO is responsible for scoring the spending or revenue impact of all proposed legislation to assess its net effect on the budget. In recent years, it has been the CBO’s responsibility to provide Congress with guidance on how to best balance the budget. The formulas that the CBO uses in scoring the budget have become an important part of the policy debate, even as the group has tried to maintain its nonpartisan nature.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is responsible for studying the impact of all proposed legislation to assess its net effect on the budget and tracking federal debt. For example, this 2010 CBO chart shows federal debt held by the public as a percentage of gross domestic product from 1790 through 2010 and projected to 2035.
In the executive branch, each individual department and agency is technically responsible for its own policy analysis. The assumption is that experts in the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Elections Commission are best equipped to evaluate the impact of various proposals within their policy domain. Law requires that most regulatory changes made by the federal government also include the opportunity for public input so the government can both gauge public opinion and seek outside perspectives.
Executive branch agencies are usually also charged with considering the economic impact of regulatory action, although some agencies have been better at this than others. Critics have frequently singled out the EPA and OSHA for failing to adequately consider the impact of new rules on business. Within the White House itself, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was created to “serve the President of the United States in implementing his [or her] vision” of policy. Policy analysis is important to the OMB’s function, but as you can imagine, it frequently compromises its objectivity during policy formulation.
PREPARING TO BE A POLICYMAKER
YOUR VOICE IN GOVERNMENT
The White House petition website encourages citizens to participate in the democratic process.
What is your passion? Is there an aspect of society you think should be changed? Become a public policy advocate for it! One way to begin is by petitioning the Office of the President. In years past, citizens wrote letters to express grievances or policy preferences. Today, you can visit We the People, the White House online petitions platform. At this government site, you can search for petitions related to your cause or post your own. If your petition gets enough signatures, the White House will issue a response. The petitions range from serious to silly, but the process is an important way to speak out about the policies that are important to you.
Follow-up activity: Choose an issue you are passionate about. Visit We the People to see if there is already a petition there concerning your chosen issue. If so, join the community promoting your cause. If not, create your own petition and try to gather enough signatures to receive an official response.
The Policy Process
The policy process contains four sequential stages: (1) agenda setting, (2) policy enactment, (3) policy implementation, and (4) evaluation. Given the sheer number of issues already processed by the government, called the continuing agenda, and the large number of new proposals being pushed at any one time, it is typically quite difficult to move a new policy all the way through the process.
Agenda setting is the crucial first stage of the public policy process. Agenda setting has two subphases: problem identification and alternative specification. Problem identification identifies the issues that merit discussion. Not all issues make it onto the governmental agenda because there is only so much attention that government can pay. Thus, one of the more important tasks for a policy advocate is to frame his or her issue in a compelling way that raises a persuasive dimension or critical need. For example, health care reform has been attempted on many occasions over the years. One key to making the topic salient has been to frame it in terms of health care access, highlighting the percentage of people who do not have health insurance.
Alternative specification, the second subphase of agenda setting, considers solutions to fix the difficulty raised in problem identification. For example, government officials may agree in the problem subphase that the increase in childhood obesity presents a societal problem worthy of government attention. However, the solution can be complex, and people who otherwise agree might come into conflict over what the best answer is. Alternatives might range from reinvestment in school physical education programs and health education classes, to taking soda and candy machines out of the schools and requiring good nutrition in school lunches. Agenda setting ends when a given problem has been selected, a solution has been paired with that problem, and the solution goes to the decision makers for a vote. Acid rain provides another nice illustration of agenda setting and the problems and solutions subphases. Acid rain is a widely recognized problem that did not make it on to the governmental policy agenda until Congress passed the Air Quality Act of 1967, long after environmental groups started asking for laws to regulate pollution.
In the second policy phase, enactment, the elected branches of government typically consider one specific solution to a problem and decide whether to pass it. This stage is the most visible one and usually garners the most press coverage. And yet it is somewhat anticlimatic. By the time a specific policy proposal (a solution) comes out of agenda setting for a yes/no vote, it can be something of a foregone conclusion that it will pass.
Once the policy has been enacted—usually by the legislative and/or executive branches of the government, like Congress or the president at the national level or the legislature or governor of a state—government agencies do the work of actually implementing it. On a national level, policy implementation can be either top-down or bottom-up. In top-down implementation, the federal government dictates the specifics of the policy, and each state implements it the same exact way. In bottom-up implementation, the federal government allows local areas some flexibility to meet their specific challenges and needs.
Evaluation, the last stage of the process, should be tied directly to the policy’s desired outcomes. Evaluation essentially asks, “How well did this policy do what we designed it to do?” The answers can sometimes be surprising. In one hotly debated case, the United States funded abstinence-only sex education for teens with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy. A 2011 study published in the journal PLoS One, however, found that abstinence-only education actually increased teen pregnancy rates. The information from the evaluation stage can feed back into the other stages, informing future decisions and creating a public policy cycle.
The two groups most engaged in making policy are policy advocates and policy analysts. Policy advocates are people who feel strongly enough about something to work toward changing public policy to fix it. Policy analysts, on the other hand, aim for impartiality. Their role is to assess potential policies and predict their outcomes. Although they are in theory unbiased, their findings often reflect specific political leanings.
A final important characteristic of public policy is that it is more than just the actions of government; it also includes the behaviors or outcomes that government action creates. Policy can even be made when government refuses to act in ways that would change the status quo when circumstances or public opinion begin to shift. For example, much of the debate over gun safety policy in the United States has centered on the unwillingness of Congress to act, even in the face of public opinion that supports some changes to gun policy. In fact, one of the last major changes occurred in 2004, when lawmakers’ inaction resulted in the expiration of a piece of legislation known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994).
The public policy process has four major phases: identifying the problem, setting the agenda, implementing the policy, and evaluating the results. The process is a cycle, because the evaluation stage should feed back into the earlier stages, informing future decisions about the policy.
The public policy development cycle
Public policy can advance the mission of your agency. As a member of public service, you may be called on to create, evaluate and defend policies in your home community. A thorough understanding of the public policy development cycle will aid you in creating and implementing more effective public policy.
The public policy development cycle is a process that requires good planning, organization and communication skills. While some public policies are developed or modified in response to a catastrophic event, many others originate because an individual or a group organizes to lead the process in an effort to address an important issue.
Taking a policy through its entire life cycle consists of five stages. Here is an overview of the public policy development cycle.
Stage 1 — Problem identification and agenda setting
This stage involves performing a community risk assessment and developing a problem statement. It considers previous actions to address risk; any existing public policies; stakeholders, including proponents and potential opponents; as well as what intervention strategies will work best to address the issues. These include education, engineering, enforcement, economic incentives and emergency response.
Stage 2 — Policy development
This stage centers on forming relationships and producing a draft of the proposed policy. Ideally, this is done by a planning team who negotiates on contents to develop a draft. It is then distributed to stakeholders for comment. The policy is refined and officially submitted for adoption.
Stage 3 — Issue resolution and policy adoption
In this stage, the policy first enters the public arena where it is debated, and it is either approved or denied by the authority having jurisdiction.
Stage 4 — Policy implementation and application
This stage covers the time period between adoption and enforcement. Education occurs for those affected by the policy about how to apply the policy. Services to help those affected by the policy are often made available. Education and support services continue so that voluntary compliance with the policy occurs in lieu of enforcement. Policy application is the time when the policy starts to be enforced.
Stage 5 — Policy evaluation
This stage measures the policy for effectiveness. Modifications are made based on this evaluation. This helps justify the need for the policy, guides the process, and determines which goals are being met and to what degree. Decision-makers allocate or redirect resources based on evaluation. Evaluation continues throughout the life cycle of a policy.
Action step for developing and implementing better public policy
The purpose of this six-day course is to empower students with the ability to create, evaluate and defend public policy in their home community. The course is also designed to facilitate understanding of how codes and regulations can be used as an effective component of fire prevention, fire mitigation, and overall community risk reduction. A risk assessment is used to prioritize risk.
The course presents the stages of the policy process which include:
- Problem identification and agenda setting.
- Policy formation.
- Issue resolution and policy adoption.
- Implementation and application.
The aim of this stage of the Framework is to identify and describe the problems that are preventing the goals and objectives defined in the previous step from being achieved.
Problem identification provides the platform for investigating a broad range of interventions and generating options. Initiatives developed in subsequent steps of the Framework should address the problems identified here.
The process of problem identification involves the development of clear, straightforward problem statements that can be linked directly with the specific goals and objectives already identified in Step 1. These statements should clarify how the problem might prevent the achievement of these goals and objectives.
Problem statements are tested and refined through more detailed analysis undertaken as part of problem assessment and prioritisation (see sections 3 and 4 below).
When identifying problems, the following should be taken into account:
- Problems prevent the goals and objectives identified in the previous step from being achieved. This should include the full range of objectives identified in the previous step – including objectives for different levels of planning and markets (see F1, section 3.1).
- Problem identification should consider not only ‘problems’ or ‘challenges’, but also constraints on opportunities that are preventing the goals and objectives from being achieved.
- Identification should be based on empirical observations, such as data and information obtained from surveys, demand modelling, interviews and studies from a wide range of sources.
Problem identification should result in problem statements that describe the nature of the problem facing the transport system and its components.
Scoping The Problem
When scoping problems, the following should be taken into account:
- The scope of a problem should be defined by what is preventing the achievement of the objectives.
- Problem identification should not be confined to existing situations or issues. Emerging and potential future problems should also be considered.
- Problems can be different for the various planning levels. For example, achieving a goal of reducing road crashes may require a specific engineering ‘fix’ at the link level (such as safety barriers or road widening), a series of rest areas at the corridor level and safety education initiatives at the network level.
- Problems should be seen as multidimensional. It is important to ‘cast the net wide’ when identifying problems. This means considering the full range of economic, social and environmental factors and canvassing a broad spectrum of potential problems, such as accessibility, business needs, availability, prices/cost, capacity, emissions and safety.
In scoping the problem, it can be helpful to map out what the problem is and its relationship to transport system objectives. A couple of mapping techniques can be used to undertake this exercise. The techniques are:
- Investment Logic Mapping
- Benefit Dependency Mapping.
The techniques are discussed further in T6. These techniques may assist in gaining an early understanding of the problem and its relationship with transport system objectives, and in identifying the underlying rationale for an intervention.
The idea of policy formulation suggests several images. The literature typically features either one or the other, rarely both simultaneously. The technically minded see this as an act of correct analysis, finding the optimal solution to a complicated problem. The politically minded see it as gaining support for a policy through the cumbersome legislative process. The former casts policy formulation in terms of rationality; the latter in terms of compromise and majority-building. Here, both are right. ^
Let us again start with the consideration of a definition:
Policy formulation is the development of effective and acceptable courses of action for addressing what has been placed on the policy agenda.
Notice that there are two parts to this definition of policy formulation:
- Effective formulation means that the policy proposed is regarded as a valid, efficient, and implementable solution to the issue at hand. If the policy is seen as ineffective or unworkable in practice, there is no legitimate reason to propose it. Policy analysts try to identify effective alternatives. This is the analytical phase of policy formulation.
- Acceptable formulation means that the proposed course of action is likely to be authorized by the legitimate decision makers, usually through majority-building in a bargaining process. That is, it must be politically feasible. If the policy is likely to be rejected by the decision making body, it may be impractical to suggest it. This is the political phase of policy formulation.
There are, then, two aspects to policy formulation: the analytical and the political. First, effective policy alternatives, presumably based on sound analysis, must be conceived and clearly articulated. Second, a political choice among these alternatives must be made: The policy must be authorized through a political process, such as legislation or regulation. Both phases — analysis and authorization –comprise policy formulation. ^
Analysis + Authorization = Formulation
The definition of policy formulation can be represented by this formula:
Analysis + Authorization = Formulation
The tidy division of labor incorporates two distinct roles professional policy analysts, working both inside and outside government, use their formidable kit of analytical tools to study an issue and to devise policy alternatives which appear to address the issue at hand. This presumably brings theory and knowledge into policy formulation.
Elected or appointed officials, however, have the final choice among alternatives presented. We like to think that they bring judgment, wisdom, and accountability to policy formulation. Both analysis and selection involve values, but this is often hidden in the case of the former, but certainly not the latter. ^
Two Complementary Roles: Analyst and Decision Maker
Both roles should complement each other. The policy planners are expected to contribute sound technical analysis regarding means, behavior, cost, implementation strategy, and consequences, good or bad. Technical analysts, however, are not held accountable to the public. The elected or politically appointed officials do not necessarily have the analytical ability to address the problem. The judgment as to goals, trade-offs, value priorities, and weighing the overall effects are left to the decision makers who are, in theory, accountable under our representative form of government.
The arrangement works to the extent that the analysts are keen and informed and that the decision makers exercise sound judgment and are responsive. If the policy goes awry, we might ask if the technical analysis was faulty or if the political actors either exercised bad judgment, excluded effective alternatives, mis-defined the problem, or “played politics” with public policy. Either way, we assume the politicians are ultimately charged with policy making and that they will properly be held accountable by the public.
But let’s make this point again, since it is so important: Elected or appointed officials, however, have the final choice among alternatives presented. ^
Before a policy can be created, a problem must exist that is called to the attention of the government. Illegal immigration, for example, has been going on for many years, but it was not until the 1990s that enough people considered it such a serious problem that it required increased government action. Another example is crime. American society tolerates a certain level of crime; however, when crime rises dramatically or is perceived to be rising dramatically, it becomes an issue for policymakers to address. Specific events can place a problem on the agenda. The flooding of a town near a river raises the question of whether homes should be allowed to be built in a floodplain. New legislation on combating terrorism (the USA Patriot Act, for example) was a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Formulation and Adoption
Policy formulation means coming up with an approach to solving a problem. Congress, the executive branch, the courts, and interest groups may be involved. Contradictory proposals are often made. The president may have one approach to immigration reform, and the opposition-party members of Congress may have another. Policy formulation has a tangible outcome: A bill goes before Congress or a regulatory agency drafts proposed rules. The process continues with adoption. A policy is adopted when Congress passes legislation, the regulations become final, or the Supreme Court renders a decision in a case.
The implementation or carrying out of policy is most often accomplished by institutions other than those that formulated and adopted it. A statute usually provides just a broad outline of a policy. For example, Congress may mandate improved water quality standards, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides the details on those standards and the procedures for measuring compliance through regulations. As noted earlier, the Supreme Court has no mechanism to enforce its decisions; other branches of government must implement its determinations. Successful implementation depends on the complexity of the policy, coordination between those putting the policy into effect, and compliance. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education is a good example. The justices realized that desegregation was a complex issue; however, they did not provide any guidance on how to implement it “with all deliberate speed.” Here, implementation depended upon the close scrutiny of circuit and appeals court judges, as well as local and state school board members who were often reluctant to push social change.
Evaluation and Termination
Evaluation means determining how well a policy is working, and it is not an easy task. People inside and outside of government typically use cost-benefit analysis to try to find the answer. In other words, if the government is spending x billions of dollars on this policy, are the benefits derived from it worth the expenditure? Cost-benefit analysis is based on hard-to-come-by data that are subject to different, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations.
History has shown that once implemented, policies are difficult to terminate. When they are terminated, it is usually because the policy became obsolete, clearly did not work, or lost its support among the interest groups and elected officials that placed it on the agenda in the first place. In 1974, for example, Congress enacted a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour. It was effective in reducing highway fatalities and gasoline consumption. On the other hand, the law increased costs for the trucking industry and was widely viewed as an unwarranted federal intrusion into an area that belonged to the states to regulate. The law was repealed in 1987.