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Through this lesson, you will learn how to define public policy, how it works in societies, and what it takes to shape and change policy through the political process.

What Defines Public Policy?

If an American is in need of emergency medical care, the first place that most seek treatment is through the emergency room at their nearest hospital. Even if the person has no medical insurance, they can be sure they will receive treatment if they go to the emergency room rather than a doctor. The reason they can count on this service is because the men and women in Congress have spent countless hours crafting public policies around health care that outline how providers will serve their patients.

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Public policy is the means by which a government maintains order or addresses the needs of its citizens through actions defined by its constitution. If this definition sounds vague or confusing, it’s likely because a public policy is generally not a tangible thing but rather is a term used to describe a collection of laws, mandates, or regulations established through a political process.In the United States, for example, there have been recent changes to the health care system that now require every citizen to have health insurance. After a series of debates, evaluations, and analysis, the federal government arrived at the conclusion that this would be in the best interest of citizens and began crafting bills, insurance mandates, and other pieces of legislation to establish a system for how Americans receive health care treatment. Through this legal and political process, they have created a new public policy, which contains several different parts in order for it to serve its purpose.If you’re a visual learner, imagine a jigsaw puzzle that contains 250 pieces. Now pretend that each of those 250 puzzle pieces represents a law, Congressional act, or federal mandate related to health care in the United States.

When you put all the pieces together properly, you arrive at your complete picture, which, in the case of this metaphor, would be the public policy.

Types of Public Policy

Because public policies are in place to address the needs of people, they are often broken down into different categories as they relate to society. Looking at some examples of these categories should give you an idea of how public policy fits into each area of society.

Health policy, for example, covers not only the insurance mandates discussed above, but refers to all policies related to the health of a particular group. When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the early 1980s, governments around the world had to craft new policies around how the disease would be treated, what steps they would take to educate the public, and so on.Another important type of public policy in a society is its legal policy.

Legal policy covers the laws used to determine, among other things, what will be considered a crime, how that crime will be punished, and who will be responsible for handing out the punishment. For example, in most cases, the act of murder is a crime that is often punished with a lengthy prison sentence or even the death penalty. The classification of murder as a crime and the common punishment for the crime are both examples of how a government responds to a problem using public policy.

Challenging Public Policy

As a collection of laws and rules used to manage a society, public policy can often be controversial or passionately debated. Depending on a person’s perspective or point of view, public policy can seem unfair, oppressive, or even inhumane.

In minority communities, it is not uncommon for people to challenge public policies that they feel restrict or marginalize themselves and others. For example, policies around women’s reproductive rights, marriage equality, and poverty have all been criticized over the last several decades because many believe that they do not represent all citizens or privilege one group over another.Because public policies are in place to meet the needs of society or solve a problem, they often change as the needs or beliefs of a society change. Given this reality, these challenges and protests of public policy are an important aspect of the political system that prevent policy from becoming outdated or no longer useful.

The Process of Crafting Public Policy

As an umbrella term that covers many different pieces and areas of society, the process for crafting public policy is often long and complex. But no matter how long or complex it is, it usually starts with a single person or idea. For example, if a person felt that 16 years old was not an appropriate age for people to begin driving, he would have the right to try to have that policy changed.If he wanted to exercise my right to do this, he would begin by contacting his Congressman or State Representative, who would then draft and introduce a bill with the proposed changes to the existing policy. This is the point of origin in the process to create public policy, and it is likely the easiest part.

The process by which a new public policy is created may start with a single person, but it can quickly develop into a debate that involves hundreds of people. Public policy is often reviewed, evaluated, and analyzed by experts before it moves forward.Depending on what the issue is, it might end up getting stuck for a long period, in which it is debated, challenged, or defended before it moves forward.

Finally, in some cases, citizens have the opportunity to vote on the policy to decide whether or not it will be established. In cases where a vote is not required, politicians are expected to make a decision that takes into account the needs or desires of all involved, not just their own opinion.

Lesson Summary

Though it can often be hard to define or identify, a public policy is really nothing more than the laws and regulations used to maintain order or solve problems in the social sector. As a citizen of a particular nation, there are a vast number of public policies to address almost every aspect of your life; from the food you eat and the services you receive, to the laws you obey and even the air you breathe; each has its own public policy that regulates it.

What to Remember about Public Policy

Public policy definition
  • Public policy is the way a government maintains order or addresses the needs of its citizens
  • Public policies can be found for multiple sectors, such as health and crime
  • Public policies are constantly changing as the needs of a society change
  • Public policies can be changed by citizens through debates and votes

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished with this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain what public policy is
  • Discuss the rights of the public to affect public policy
  • List some types of public policy
  • Recall why public policy is constantly changing

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