What is Public Policy?

What does it mean to study Public Policy?

The study of public policy must be interdisciplinary in focus because public programs and public policy problems are complex and transcend any single approach. It is important to emphasize that an effective public policy studies program is truly interdisciplinary in approach and not simply multidisciplinary. Not only should multiple disciplines be involved in policy study, but each participant should strive to understand the perspective of the other participants. While not losing his or her particular disciplinary perspective, all participants in the policy study process should strive to understand and appreciate the unique offerings of other disciplinary perspectives.

Borrowing from Vertriss (1991), "…interdisciplinary research and teaching is not merely a smorgasbord of faculty thrown together who exhibit only a modicum of knowledge concerning the meaningful linkages between administration (or policy) with the public… If the public affairs program expects its students to be exposed to a variety of viewpoints and how they can be synthesized in addressing the major issues of the day, scholars in public affairs programs must exhibit the same dedication..." (p. 8).

Expanding the circle beyond the university, public policy studies should involve practitioners in the education, research and service work of the program. Growth in the theoretical understanding of policy in strong public policy programs is furthered by "research that involves the mutual assistance of a broader body of scholars that is enriched by close collaboration with public officials and that is related to fundamental problems of government and administration" (Ventriss 1991, p. 5).

From a policy studies perspective, policies and programs can be seen as experiments which test cause and effect relationships. Karl Popper argues these policy experiments are opportunities to develop "an empirical social technology" which expands theory and under girds the design of better policy (deHaven-Smith 1988, p. 11). Interdisciplinary in its approach, policy study uses a disciplined approach as it maintains a dialogue between theory and practice. Policy studies is inclusive in the stakeholder perspectives it uses and critical in its examination of the assumptions inherent in different policy options. In this way policy studies serves to broaden policy options and promote more effective implementation of public policy.

"Society works best, says the economist... when there exists a market, a mechanism for enabling people to rationally maximize their own self-interest. We tried that and it did not work, might respond the political scientist. Restraint is needed to coordinate the chaos of the individually defined choices toward a socially defined goal. Neither solution, responds the sociologist, is perfect. What actually makes society work is neither self-interest nor coercion, but... tradition, norms, reciprocity and all those other features of culture that society is losing" (Reiman 1984, p. 61).

Beryl A. Radin (1997), in her "Presidential Address" to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, described the changes that have occurred as the context of policy analysis has changed. She noted changes in:

The Scale And Location Of Policy Analysis Functions

  • Previous: Policy analysts were assumed to work in top levels of government. Analysts were believed to be neutral experts.

  • Now: Policy analysts work at all levels of government. They often are perceived as having "clients" for whom they do their analysis.

The Political Environment

  • Previous: Analysts believed they could do analysis in an objective and a-political way...

  • Now: Politics and ideology plays a larger role in the design and outcome of policy analysis.

Analytic Methodologies And Approaches

  • Previous: Academics were contracted to do analysis. Technique was the emphasis. Techniques were drawn from both positivist social science and normative economic models.

  • Now: Agencies have their own analysts and much more is done by "think tanks." The process of analysis happens in the complex context of multiple actors, levels of meaning, and external pressures that created the policy systems.

Availability And Use Of Information

  • Previous: Assumption that fact/value distinctions could be made.

  • Now: Realization that data does not gather itself or tell its own story. Analysis is also interpretation shaped by the values and beliefs of the analyst.

Dimensions And Forms Of Policy Analysis

  • Previous: Analysis was done in an era of optimism about the effectiveness of governmental programs. The emphasis was on the design and testing of new and innovative programs with expanding budgets.

  • Now: Analysis is done in the context of budget cutting. Emphasis is on making present programs work better.


  • DeHaven-Smith, Lance. 1988. Philosophical Critiques of Policy Analysis: Lindblom, Habermas, and the Great Society. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
  • Radin, Beryl A. 1997. "Presidential Address: The Evolution of the Policy Analysis Field: From Conversation to Conversations," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16(2): 204-18.
  • Reiman, Jeffrey H. 1984. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Ventriss, Curtis. 1991. "Contemporary Issues in American Public Administration Education: The Search for an Educational Focus," Public Administration Review 51(January/February): 4-14.