Policy Making 101: Highlights of the Policy Making Process

Policy Making 101: Highlights of the Policy Making Process
In the course of my work in public policy, I have come across many people interested in understanding the workings of public policy processes. Starting with this brief article, I am making an introduction to a simplified process that may be familiar to some yet unfamiliar to many.

Public policy can be defined as what the government plans to do or chooses not to do in response to a particular issue. The action chosen (if the government chooses to do something) goes through a process, starting with acknowledging that the problem is worth paying attention to, to evaluating whether that solution is working as intended.

Public policy can be defined as what the government plans to do or chooses not to do in response to a particular issue.

Different actors are involved in the policy cycle including but not limited to politicians, the media, policy technocrats, researchers business people, interest groups (activists, lobbyists) and the public. Each of these actors plays different roles in each stage of this cycle. Below, I will highlight the four broad steps in the policy-making process, highlighting some key issues at each stage that may be of interest:

Agenda Setting

Agenda setting refers to the ability to influence what is considered an important problem worthy of a solution. The media play a very important role here but so do politicians and the government. Agendas can further be split into public and formal agenda. It's possible to have an issue that the public thinks should be addressed but which nevertheless does not get into the formal policy agenda for instance opinion polls. Only problems that make it to the formal agenda move to the next stage.

Whoever influences what is placed on the formal agenda has real power. The media and politicians largely have the most influence over what gets on the formal policy agenda. This process is in most cases not immune to interference from entities that stand to lose or gain from a potential policy.

Policy Formulation

Even when it is clear that a problem is worth solving, different people will have differing views regarding what is the best alternative solution. These differences may result from different moral viewpoints, interests, and incentives among others. Research plays a key role in helping to minimize the differences by providing an objective cost-benefit analysis of each alternative scenario. Depending on the stakes associated with the potential change, this process could also be influenced.

At this stage, the policy is drafted and approved by the respective authorizing entity according to the law. This stage can take anywhere from a few weeks to years depending on the level of contention on the subject matter and interests of individuals with influence over the process.

Policy Implementation

Formulating a policy does not solve the problems being addressed. This policy must be operationalized, financed and enforced to achieve this. Factors that may impact policy implementation include but are not limited to 1) bureaucratic incompetence; 2) bureaucratic resistance; 3) limited resource allocation; and 4) eventual policy modifications. As you will notice, institutions keen on change should not rest on their laurels once the policy has been passed. Sometimes, the focus may shift towards safeguarding the new solution from assault through weak implementation.

Policy Evaluation

Once implemented, the natural expectation is that the policy will achieve the desired change. Policy evaluation is an assessment of the performance of the policy towards this end. Policy evaluation will assess policy compliance and extract lessons learnt to improve the future re-formulation of the policy. Researchers have a critical role to play here.

Policy development is usually an incremental process, and the evidence derived from the functioning of a particular policy plays an important role in improvements that refine the policy itself. Convincing evidence from policy evaluations has the potential to feedback into the policy agenda thereby completing the policy cycle.

Even though this process seems linear and straightforward, it can be highly complex in reality. Moving from one step to another can take 20 years or a couple of days depending on the issue. Different actors make active attempts along the process to sway the outcome to serve their interests. In most cases, the people with the most power call the shots.
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