What is public policy? Public policy refers to laws and other actions of a government, including its funding priorities. It encompasses the regulations that reflect given positions, attitudes, cultural ideals, and/or accepted rules specific to any branch of a particular government.
Public policy impacts what the government does and how governmental decisions are made. It determines the actions that a government chooses to implement or emphasize, as well as those that it decides not to act on. The public policy definition is broad, encompassing not only laws and regulations, but also how resources are allocated and what is prioritized. Elected officials and governmental entities simultaneously shape and implement public policy.
- When lawmakers or regulators decide whether to pass a law, establish a legislative agenda or implement regulations, they are establishing public policy.
- When elected officials or other government representatives consider whether to give something priority or govern in a certain way, they are implementing public policy.
- When government leaders seek to change previous laws, rules or practices, they are often changing the direction of public policy.
There are four primary types of public policy:
Laws and regulations that allow a government to clearly define the boundaries of what is allowed versus what is not allowed represent regulatory public policy. This type of public policy places restrictions on what individuals or organizations can do for the purpose of protecting overall economic and social welfare.
- When courts refuse to enforce contracts related to illegal behavior, such as refusing to enforce a contract for prostitution or a contract to purchase stolen goods, this is an example of a public policy decision. The courts don't want to encourage wrongful behavior like people entering into illegal contracts.
- When lawmakers pass legislation like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994, this is an act that shapes public policy. It shows that there is a priority to provide protection for women.
- When lawmakers pass legislation protecting workers, instituting wage-and-hour laws and providing enforcement for wage-and-hour laws, this is a public policy decision. The policy is to protect the rights of workers within the society.
- When a state imposes tough restrictions on abortion, this is reflective of a pro-life public policy position focused on beliefs about when life begins and protecting the rights of the unborn.
- The issue of gun rights is a matter of public policy. When tougher gun laws are enacted, this is based on a public policy that stricter laws are likely to lower crime and keep guns out of the hands of criminals. When gun laws are looser, this is based on a public policy prioritizing the rights of gun owners and on a belief that restrictive gun laws will not be effective in stopping violence.
- When courts and legislatures make the decision to legalize same-sex marriage or to make same-sex marriage legal or illegal, they will take into account existing laws and how they are interpreted along with the need for new legislation. They'll consider what they believe benefits the public as a whole, along with cultural ideas on the issue.
Public policy related to how a government is structured is referred to as constituent public policy. This type of public policy relates to the overall structure and form of government, including governmental agencies, procedures and rules.
- When the U.S. established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, this represented a public policy commitment to preventing terrorism within the country's borders.
- The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) of 1946 is an example of constituent public policy. This law established the procedures that federal regulatory agencies must use when developing, proposing and implementing new regulations. This is why proposed regulations must be posted so that the public can comment on them before a Final Rule can be issued.
- By establishing the Works Progress Administration in 1935 (as part of the New Deal), the U.S. government established a structure to put people back to work in federal jobs following the Great Depression. This represented public policy focused on economic recovery.
- The way a state handles electoral votes is a matter of constituent public policy. In most U.S. states, all of that state's electors for the electoral college are awarded to the candidates who receive the majority of the vote. In a few states (Maine and Nebraska), electors are allocated proportionally based on the percentage of votes received by each candidate.
- The procedures used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to declare a disaster, which must happen before FEMA assistance can be deployed to an area impacted by a catastrophic event, represent an example of constituent public policy. Governors often declare a disaster in advance of impact to speed up their state's eligibility for FEMA assistance.
Public policy focused on using government funds to pay for public goods or services is distributive in nature. Distributive public policy may directly impact only a certain group of individuals or organizations but generally provide for the common good.
- The approach that the U.S. federal government took with Covid-19 vaccines reflects distributive public policy. This is why vaccines are available to everyone who wants one at no cost. The vaccines aren't actually free; the federal government is purchasing them and making them available to anyone who wants one without requiring individuals to pay for them.
- When the U.S. government allocates funds to the Department of Transportation (DOT), which are then distributed to the states, to construct and maintain roads and bridges, this is an example of distributive public policy. Everyone can benefit from this spending.
- Federal Department of Education (DOE) funds that are allocated and distributed to state K-12 educational systems in order to help fund primary and secondary schools, this represents distributive public policy.
- State governments that impose school taxes on citizens to fund their K-12 educational systems are an example of distributive public policy on the state level. Those who live in a certain state pay taxes that are used to fund education that is open to all children who live in the state.
- When a government uses taxpayer funds to distribute school vouchers to offset the cost of private school, that is a public policy decision backing up the idea of government-funded school choice rather than expecting parents who wish to send their children to private schools to cover the entire cost out-of-pocket.
Governmental policies that result in redistributing government funds to benefit a particular group within society are examples of redistributive public policy. These policies involve redistributing funds from one group of people to a different group of people.
- The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included several measures designed to provide relief to those who experienced economic injury due to the COFID-19 pandemic. It included Payroll Protection Act Funding limited to businesses that lost 25% or more of their gross revenue due to the pandemic. This represents a redistributive public policy.
- Programs designed to provide financial support to needy individuals or families are examples of redistributive public policy. Examples include programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Supplemental Nutritional Aid Program (SNAP).
- Department of Education (DOE) funds that are distributed to college students in the form of Pell grants and federal student loans to students based on financial need illustrate redistributive public policy. These need-based taxpayer programs are distributed only to those who meet certain financial criteria.
- When lawmakers impose a progressive tax system, this is based on public policy which indicates that those who make more money should pay more money into the system and those who have less money should pay less into the system. The idea is that those who earn the most money should make a higher contribution to help fund programs for those who earn very little.
- When income tax is structured such that tax rates are lowered for corporations and wealthy individuals, this reflects a public policy approach rooted in the concept of trickle-down economics. This is based on a belief that if those in the position to create jobs pay less tax, then they'll increase wages or hire more workers, ultimately benefiting those who earn less money.
These are just some of many examples of public policy and how lawmakers both shape and are shaped by public policy. Understanding the role of public policy is very important, and there can be vast differences in public policy positions and outcomes. Learning about the different types of public policy will help you develop a deeper understanding of how government operates. Now that you have reviewed some public policy examples, take the time to explore different types of government around the world.