Public  policy  may be defined as a course of action taken by a government to address an issue or a matter of national importance or resolve a problem or a crisis ~ Peter Johnson

Other definitions of public  policy are:

"Public policy is a purposeful  and consistent course of action taken as a response to a perceived problem of a nation, formulated by a specific political process, and adopted, implemented and enforced by a public agency." ~ Wayne Hayes

" The term public policy always refers to the actions of government and the intentions and commitment that determine those actions." ~ Clarke E. Cochran, et al.

"Public policy is whatever governments choose to do or not to do." ~ Thomas Dye

"Public policy consists of political decisions for implementing programmes to achieve societal goals." ~ Charles L. Cochran and Eloise F. Malone

"Public policy is the sum of government activities, whether  acting directly or through agents, as it has an influence and impact on the life of citizens." ~ B. Guy Peters

"Public policy can be generally defined as a system of laws, programmes,  regulatory measures, courses of action and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a government entity or its representatives." ~ Dean G. G. Kilpatrick

Based on the definitions given  above, we could conclude  that public policies are those that governments adopt to address certain specific problems. For example, most governments have adopted the public policy of banning the sale of alcohol to minors. This policy addresses the problem of teenage alcohol abuse. Policies are expressed in the form of laws,  regulations, decisions and actions. Policies are the means of achieving goals.  If the goal is to provide homes for the homeless, a policy might be a plan to build 20,000 units of low-cost housing. If the goal is to fight and reduce crime, a policy might be to put 500 more police officers on the streets of the city.

Numerous issues are addressed by public policy, including crime, education, healthcare, social welfare, corruption, energy, transportation, agriculture, foreign policy, economic and financial policy, poverty, etc.  There are three parts to public policy-making: problems, players, and the policy. The problems  are  the issues  that need to be addressed. The players are the individuals, politicians, government agencies and officials, legislators, lobbying groups and  pressure/interest groups.  Policy  is the finalized goal-oriented  action taken  by the government to resolve a problem or achieve a certain objective or goal or  to fulfil a specific need under certain circumstances.   Public  policy is made by the institutions of the government, i.e. the Executive, the Cabinet, the legislature, the judiciary and government departments. Many policies are translated into law by government action. For example, to control drink-driving deaths, many sates have enacted tough drunk-driving laws;  to improve the environment, several governments have enacted  air-quality laws; to prevent accidents, some countries have enacted laws restricting cell phone (mobile phone/hand phone)  use while driving. 

Examples of Public Policies in Malaysia

The Malaysian government has formulated and implemented several policies to address specific problems or issues. Some of these  are:

Privatisation Policy.  This policy was introduced by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  in 1983 and its objectives are  'to reduce the financial and administrative burden of the government,' particularly in undertaking and maintaining services and infrastructure; 'to promote competition, improve efficiency and increase productivity'  in the delivery of these services; 'to stimulate private entrepreneurship  and investment,' and thus accelerate economic growth and 'to reduce the presence and the size of the public sector, with its monopolistic tendencies and bureaucratic support.'

National Social Welfare Policy.  The objectives of this policy are 'to develop human potential to the optimum and to strengthen society to face current social challenges, create various facilities for enhancing self-development and development of the individual, and build and inculcate the spirit of mutual help and assistance to reinforce a caring culture.'

Malaysian Industrial Policy.  The objectives of this policy are the following: (a) "to ensure a fair distribution of wealth amongst different races in the country"; (b) "to promote the development of manufacturing industries serving foreign markets"; (c) " to promote the development of manufacturing industries serving domestic markets"; and  (d) "to cope with new competition from large firms in the domestic (primary services) market." 

National Agricultural Policy.  The objectives of the  third National Agricultural Policy (NAP3) are: (i) "to enhance food security"; (ii) to increase productivity and competitiveness of the sector"; (iii) "to deepen linkages with other sectors"; (iv) "to create new sources of growth for the sector" and (v) to conserve and utilise natural resources on a sustainable basis."

National Education Policy. This policy is aimed at "producing Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable and competent, who possess high moral standards and who are responsible and capable of achieving high level of personal well-being as well as being able to contribute to the harmony and betterment of the society and the nation at large".

Significance of Public Policy

(i)  Public policy plays an important role in shaping the responses of the various fields of human endeavour - such as education, housing, welfare, healthcare, agriculture, defence, transportation, etc to public needs.

(ii) Public policy is essential to achieving meaningful changes or reforms or improvements  in government administration and its services and activities.  It is also instrumental in bringing about socio-economic development in a country.

(iii) Public policy serves as a tool or instrument  for  identifying  issues of national concern or problems,  implementing   the best course of action for  resolving the problems and evaluating the impact of  the action taken by the government to resolve the problems or issues.

(iv)  It consists of political decisions for the implementation of specific programmes to attain the objectives  of the nation. It is therefore important as it is concerned with the goals of a country, intending to create positive impacts.

(v) Through public policy, the government strives to advance the collective well-being- social, political, and economic- of a society.

Stages in the Policy-making Process

A policy established and carried out by the government goes through several stages from inception to conclusion. These stages are : 1. Problem Identification; 2. Agenda Setting; 3. Policy Formulation; 4. Policy Implementation; and 5. Policy Evaluation. These are sometimes referred to as elements of public policy.

1. Problem Identification.  The first and the most important step in the public policy process is the identification of the issue or problem that needs to  be addressed or resolved. This involves not only recognising that a problem exists, but also studying the problem and its causes in detail. It is important to have a clear idea about what you want to achieve. Examples of problems: Poverty - ( causes of poverty; should it be eradicated or reduced?); Environmental pollution: (causes of pollution; should it be eliminated or controlled?).

2. Agenda Setting.  Once a problem has been identified that deserves serious attention, policy-makers put it on formal / official agendas. This sets a time, date and place for policy-makers to discuss how to tackle the identified problem.    

3. Policy Formulation.   This means coming up with an approach to solving a problem. Policy-planning agencies, the executive branch, the legislature, bureaucrats,  political parties and interest groups may be involved in this stage of the policy process.   In this stage,  alternative solutions  would be developed to resolve the identified problem. All the alternatives   would  be  thoroughly evaluated during this stage before  the best course of action from among the alternatives generated  is chosen and adopted. 

4. Policy Implementation.   The next obvious step after choosing an option would be implementing the solution. Various  government agencies would be involved in implementing the policies decided.     For example, if the policy is concerned with reducing or eliminating environmental pollution, the agency responsible for the environment  would serve as the implementing agency.    If the policy concerns reducing  incidence of death  due to road accidents, the agency responsible for  public  transportation will be the implementing agency.

5. Policy Evaluation.   This is the final stage in the public policy process.  Evaluation is an ongoing or continuous process. It involves a study or review of how effective the new policy has been in resolving  the original problem. In other words,  evaluation is conducted for checking the effects of the policy (i.e. whether or not it has achieved the pre-determined objectives)  and for  assessing the impact of the policy in terms of  efficiency, effectiveness, validity and  its continued relevance. Based on the feedback or identified weaknesses, corrective action is taken.


There are some conceptual models that  describe  how policy-making occurs.  These models explain policies and their development.  Policy analysts use these models to  analyse the creation and application of public policy and to identify important aspects of policy, as well as explain and predict policy and its consequences.  Some selected models of  public policy are the following:

Elite Model of Public Policy

The Elite Model (also known  as the Elite Theory) views public policy as the preferences (pilihan), priorities (keutamaan),   values  (nilai)  and interests (kepentingan) of a ruling elite. The ruling elite is  a small group composed of people with wealth, intelligence, skills, political power, military might, influence, etc. They belong to the upper class  of society.   Elite theory suggests that people are passive, apathetic (bersikap terlalu acuh tak acuh),  ill-informed and easily manipulated.  Therefore, elites actually shape mass (public)  opinion on policy  issues/ matters  more than the masses shape elite opinion. Thus, public policy really turns out to be the preferences of the elite. Mass sentiments do not influence the values of elites. In other words, public policy does not  reflect  the demands or wants (kehendak)  of the masses (people). Moreover, elections would not enable the mass to make public policy; elections only tie the mass to the political system governed by the elite.

The elites  make public policy by themselves. Public officials and administrators (bureaucrats) merely carry out  or execute the policies decided by the elite. Policies flow downwards from elites to the masses (see the diagram below).

Rational Model of Public Policy

The rational model of public policy-making is a process for making logically-sound decisions in the public sector. Herbert Simon, the father of the rational model, describes rationality as "a style of behaviour that is appropriate to the achievement of given goals. The rational model is intended to achieve "maximum social gain";  that is,  governments should choose policies resulting in gains to society - the gains  must exceed costs. In other words, no policy should be adopted if its costs exceed its benefits. Decision-makers should choose the policy that produces the greatest benefit over cost. 

According to this model, achieving   rational decisions involve the following steps: (a) intelligence gathering: data and potential problems and opportunities are identified, collected and analyzed; (b) a list of possible alternatives to resolve the identified problem are generated; (c) the alternatives are evaluated  in terms of the consequences,  costs and benefits of each policy alternative,  the ratio of benefits to costs for each alternative are calculated and  the most efficient and effective policy alternative is selected and implemented.  The implemented policy is then evaluated in terms of its effectiveness, efficiency and impact of policy  and corrective action is taken to overcome the problems identified.

Institutional Model

According to this model, public policy is authoritatively determined, implemented and enforced by political institutions such as the  legislature, the executive, the  judiciary and the political parties. A policy is not a policy until it is adopted by government institutions. Government lends legitimacy to policies. Government policies are generally regarded as legal obligations that command the obedience and loyalty of citizens. Government policies extend to all people in a country.

Group Model / Group Theory

Group theory views politics as a struggle (perjuangan)  among various  groups (such as political parties, pressure groups, racial and religious groups)  in a society  to influence public policy. It states that public policy is the result of  the struggle and competition between various groups in a society. Policy-makers constantly  (sentiasa)  respond to group pressures bargaining, negotiating and compromising among competing demands (tuntutan bersaing)  of influential groups and balancing conflicting interests in society. The power of each group is checked by the power of competing groups. According to the group theory, public policy at any given time is the equilibrium  (keseimbangan) reached in the group struggle or competition.

Incrementalism (Incremental Model)

Incrementalism views public policy as a continuation of past government activities or policies with only incremental changes (perubahan tambahan) or modifications (pengubahsuaian). Because an in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits of every conceivable alternative for dealing with a problem in public policy is often very time-consuming and  expensive, public organizations may resort to a practical shortcut in deciding on possible improvements to existing programmes. Only a few of the many possible options or alternatives and their consequences are seriously considered or examined. Policy-makers generally accept the legitimacy of established programmes and agree to continue previous or existing policies. They accept previous policies because of the uncertainty and lack of information  about the consequences of completely new or different policies. In this model, existing programmes or policies or expenditures are considered as a base and only small changes, and not radical innovations, are made to existing policies.  There is no optimal policy decision - a good policy is one that is acceptable to all groups  rather than what is best to solve a problem.

Incremental policy-making is essentially remedial; it focuses on small and gradual changes to existing policies rather than dramatic fundamental changes or radical innovations. In this model, policy-making is also serial, you have to keep coming back to problems as  mistakes become  apparent and are corrected, and new approaches to the issues are developed gradually. The model suggests that major changes occur through a series of of small steps, each of which does not fundamentally 'rock the boat.'  "The policy process is one of muddling through" (Lindblom, 1980). An example of incrementalism often cited  concerns increases or decreases in annual government budgets, ranging from 5 to 10%.

Peter Johnson 2011-2012








Peter Johnson 2011-2012