Public policy is a complex study area which has many faces depending on the context one wishes to apply them. Currently, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes public policy. Before addressing the subject matter, it is important to know what constitutes a policy. A policy comes in form of general statements about priorities, written set of laws or guidelines, procedures or values to be achieved. Mackay M. (2007) refers to policy as a distinct path of action which is suitable for the pursuit of chosen goals within a particular framework, directing the decision making of an organization or individual. This write up aims at defining what constitutes public policy. This will be done by explaining some components within the policy cycle.
Cochran C.L. and Malone E.F. (2014) describe public policy as the general outline within which government measures are undertaken to achieve public goals. Policy provides guidance to governments over a range of actions and also provides mutual accountability links between the government and its citizens. (Heywood, 2004) illustrates this with what one John Locke stated on social contract and this resonates well with the government’s responsibility in fulfilling various issues affecting the citizens. The policy process therefore includes the problem to be addressed, the goals the policy is designed to achieve, and the instruments of policy that are employed to address the problems identified.
In understanding the meaning of public policy, it is important to firstly distinguish public policy and a decision as they seem to be used interchangeably and yet they point to different paths. It is stated that a decision can be taken by an individual, organization and indeed government but not all decisions end up being taken as policies. Cloete (1998) on the other hand, defines public policy as government’s program of action to give effect to selected normative and empirical goals in order to address perceived problems and needs in society in a specific way, and therefore achieve desired changes in that society.
Public policy process can be triggered when there is an existing problem that is called to the attention of the government. Birkland T.A. (2011) identifies this initial process as agenda setting. An agenda is therefore understood as a collection of problems, understanding of causes, solutions, and other elements of public problems that come to the attention of members of the public and their governmental officials. Birkland goes on to state that an agenda may be in a form of bills that are before a legislature, but also includes a series of beliefs about the existence and magnitude of problems and how they should be addressed by government. The agenda setting as a process is never short of challenges as not all problems are considered to be taken as agenda meant to arrest the problem identified. This is therefore seen as a political process whereby interested parties would wish to outsmart those deemed to hold contrary opinion.
The understanding of a policy can also be through the policy design process. Implementation of a public policy is a crucial area that needs much attention and energy. This process includes identifying delivery challenges and ensuring that any obstacles to delivery and achievement to the set goals and objectives have materialized.
Policy issues are so numerous in Malawi so much so that it is important to understand them on a historical perspective. During the one-party era led by Kamuzu Banda, policy issues were depicting the leadership and party machinery wishes and not the masses. The multiparty dispensation came with a big change in the way policy were understood, implemented and evaluated. Kayuni M. (2010) argued that, other players like Non-governmental organizations, political parties, the media, donors and others started playing some part in the policy process. One of the very first policies formed during this time was the Free Primary Education. This was touted as a success looking at the response it received from the citizens, however, challenges surfaced when it was discovered that the initial stages did not consider issues of human resource in terms of teachers and infrastructure development among others. This portrays lack of extensive consultations with relevant stakeholders for the success of the policy. This entails that initial processes in the formulation of a policy matter most.
Policy can also be an outcome of various processes that are borne out of goals and strategies pointing to the aspirations of the state in favor of its citizens. The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy of 2006 to 2011 which aims at reducing poverty through sustained economic growth and infrastructure development is a very good example. This initiative is a policy shift from social consumption to sustainable economic growth especially in the rural areas. These objectives and goals have also been shown in the Millennium Development Goals of which Malawi for example has subscribed to. This as an initiative and a roadmap on development, contains a number of areas like social development, infrastructure development, and sustainable economic development among others. All these act as guidelines for the smooth operation of government functions meant for its citizens.
Public policy is also seen in the way it is implemented. There are some schools of thought on how the implementation is administered. Matland R.E (1995) has shown that there are those who believe that the best approach is through the top to bottom means where goals, objectives, strategies come all the way from those having authority or power in the state. This approach is seen as an imposition on the citizens who in turn upon not being satisfied discard the policy or development coming with it. The other school of thought believes that the policy implementation should be an all-encompassing affair where input should come from those who are affected and have interest in the subject matter. This approach is mainly depicted in the bottom to top approach where policy is made at a local level. This clearly shows that policy is a fertile area that is full of conflicts unless it is an all-encompassing affair appealing to all.
Evaluation or monitoring is another important aspect that shows the aspects of public policy and therefore a means to understand what they are all about. Wollman (2003) provides that evaluation may be defined as an analytical tool and procedure meant to investigate a policy program to obtain all information pertinent to the assessment of its performance, both process and result. The evaluation in the policy cycle also acts in reporting information back to the policy-making process. Evaluation is very crucial in such a way that information obtained can be used in order to make some changes, correct or redirect the implementation process or even underlying key policy decisions. This is therefore a systematic feedback tool that is deliberately meant to show whether the policy is reflective of the goals and objectives or out of touch with the government and citizens.
In conclusion, public policy which is sometimes simply known as policy is a crucial initiative that governments use to undertake endeavors that are beneficial to the citizens. The policy process however does not take a smooth path as there are challenges associated with formulation, implementation which runs parallel to the goals and objectives set. All in all, they are a blue print showing government’s efforts in trying to deal with identified problems affecting people. An all-embracing policy that is effectively formulated, implemented and evaluated is a sure way of building trust between state and its citizens thereby fulfilling the core of social contract.
Birkland T.A (2011) An Introduction to the Policy Process: Theories, Concepts and Models of Public Policy Making, Armonk:M.E Sharpe Book
Matland R.E (1995), Synthesizing the Implementation Literature: The Ambiguity-Conflict Model of Policy Implementation Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART, Vol. 5, No. 2
Fischer F, Miller G.J and Sydney M.S (2007) Handbook of Public Policy Analysis: Theory, Politics, and Methods, CRC Press,Taylor ; Francis Group
Heywood A (2004) Political Theory: An Introduction, 3rd Edition, Palgrave Macmillan
Government of Malawi, Malawi Growth and Development Strategy 2006-2011
Cloete F, Wissick H and de Coning C (eds) Improving Public Policy from Theory to Practice, Hartfield: Van Schaik Publishers Book
Kayuni H.M (2010) Chaos-Complexity Theory and Education Policy: Lessons from Malawi’s Community Day Secondary Schools Bulgarian Journal of Science and Education Policy (BJSEP), Volume 4, Number 1, 2010
Mackay M (2007) Understanding and Applying Basic Public Policy Concepts, University of Guelph, Louise Shaxton
Cochran C.L. and Malone E.F. (2014) Public Policy: Perspectives and Choices, 5th Edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers