What is Public Policy?

We’ve been engaged with public policies more than we acknowledge. From waiting for the class suspensions on stormy days to participation in the Pride March in support of LGBT rights, we have shown our interest in public policy and the desire to influence it.

However, what exactly is a public policy?

Often, it is a concept we know but can’t clearly explain. It leaves us to use vague examples that create more questions than answers.

As such, this article aims to describe public policy in two ways. First, I’m presenting the prominent definitions coined by scholars. Then, I’ll identify the various key characteristics that make public policy as it is.

The Definitions of Public Policies

Coining a unanimous definition for public policy is a difficult feat that even the greatest minds are yet to accomplish. Scholars defined public policy based on their encounters with it. Each encounter is unique; thus, they described it differently from others.

Thomas R. Dye defined it as “whatever the government chooses to do or not to do.” This posited that a public policy is both the action and inaction of governments, in which the policymakers deliberately choose the actions (or inaction) to take.

William Jenkins described it as “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.” This considers the means of implementing policies. 

Additionally, it shows that public policy is not a mere choice, but a political process that entails connected decisions aimed at a specific goal.

James Anderson defined it as “a purposive course of action followed by an actor or set of actors in dealing with a problem or matter of concern”, which emphasized public policy’s problem-solving, goal oriented, and collaborative aspects.

Charles L. Cochran and Eloise Malone, and B. Guy Peters provided definitions that resonate that of Anderson.

For Cochran and Malone, “public policy consists of political decisions for implementing programs to achieve societal goals.”

On the other hand, B. Guy Peters, defined it as “the set of activities that governments engage in for the purpose of changing their economy and society.”

Those definitions reiterated the goal-oriented and problem-solving nature of public policy, and the political process that its creation undergoes. Notably, they highlighted that public policies are specifically designed for the society.

The definitions show various ways in which we can perceive public policy. Despite the differences in takes, they have shown similarities in some aspects. Collating these allows us to identify key characteristics that make a public policy which paves way to fundamentally understand the concept.

Key Attributes of Public Policies

The Center for Civic Education posited key characteristics that identifies a public policy. Drawing from the institution’s work and the definitions coined by the scholars, public policies have the following key characteristics: (1) it is a response to an issue, (2) goal-oriented, (3) it is made for the public, (4) its creation involves a political process, (4) it is a guideline, and (5) it’s a government action – or inaction.

The definitions showed us that public policies are meant specifically to respond to an issue or problem. It is the solution that is expected to resolve the problem at that moment.

Also, it showed us that it has a definite goal and corresponding methods to attain it. As such, we often see public policies to have components such as tasks, assignment, benchmarking, and target population/beneficiaries.

Scholars identified that public policies are meant for the benefit of the public. It caters to the welfare of the people by ensuring that the population’s needs are addressed. It’s created for us: me and you.

Furthermore, the definitions showed us that crafting public policy is a political process. It illustrates that creation of public policies involves interaction among government departments, agencies, and other non-government institutions and actors. 

Public policies are guidelines. We encounter them as laws issued by the government.  It is actually a signed piece of paper that provides detailed instructions to our government to enable them in efficiently attaining the intended goal.

Lastly, public policies are the government’s action (or inaction). It is a government output despite the involvement of other actors in its creation. In the end, the government has the last say on the public policy’s final composition.


In this article, we attempted to have a clearer grasp on the concept of public policies by examining definitions from key scholars and extracting from it the key characteristics that rendered public policy as it is.

We learned that defining it is a difficult task that even scholars can’t come up with a unanimous description. Nonetheless, they uncovered for us the characteristics that can help us identify and understand the concept of public policy.

Their definitions enlightened us that a public policy entails the following key characteristics:

  • It solves problems
  • It is goal-oriented
  • It is made for the public
  • It is created via political process
  • It is a guideline, and
  • It is a government action/inaction

These characteristics revealed to us the purpose of public policy and to whom it caters to. These gave us an idea about its creation and creators. Also, it showcased to us its form and composition.

Drawing from this, we may identify public policy as a guideline created and used by the government, which is shaped by their interactions with government and non-government actors and institutions, intended to address an issue that concerns the public.

However, it is notable that even this definition has brought in some more questions on public policy; questions that I intend to cover in future works. For now, I hope this article provided a better understanding of public policy as it will be useful as we go deeper and discuss various aspects of the concept.

To close, I would like to leave you a point to reflect upon: How engaged are you with public policy?

You may share your thoughts in the comments below.

In our next article, we will elucidate on the types of public policy.

4 thoughts on “What is Public Policy?”

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