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Public Policy | Theories of Public Policy

Public Policy | Theories of Public Policy

Dotnepal presents a short note on public policy and its theories. The note is useful for the students of MPA, Loksewa preparation and researchers. Download a file from the given link.

What is Public Policy

Public policy is a course of a action and inaction chosen by public authorities to address a problem. It is expressed in the body of laws, regulations, decisions and actions of government. Public policy analysis may be used to formulate public policy and to evaluate its effectiveness.

There are various definitions of public policy analysis given by public analysis. Thomas R. Dye defines public policy as “whatever government chooses to do or not to do” (Dye, 2002:1). Robert Eyestone defines public policy as “the relationship of a government unit to its environment”. According to David Eastion “Public policy is the authoritative allocation of values for the whole society” (Reejal, 1995: 1-3).

The common elements of public policy analysis are as follows:

Policy is made in the name of “public”.

Policy is generally made or initiated by government.

Policy is interpreted or implemented by public and private sectors.

Policy is what the government intends to do.

Policy is what government chooses not to do.

The theories or theories of public policy analysis are the simplified representation of the aspects of real world (Dye, 2002:11). The theories of public policy analysis try to simplify and clarify our thinking about politics and public policy, identify important aspects of policy problems, help us to communicate with each other by focusing on essential features of political life, direct our efforts to understand public policy better by suggesting what is important and what is unimportant and suggest explanations for public policy and predict its consequences. The primary objective of this paper is to evaluate different theories of public policies critically.

Theories for Public Policy Analysis and Limitations

The following theories for public analysis will be discussed in this paper:

1. Populist Theory

2. Rational comprehensive Theory

3. Incremental Theory (Incrementalism: Policy as a Variation on the Past )

4. Mixed Scanning Theory

5. Limited or Bounded Rationality Theory

6. Constraints Theory

Theories of Public Policy

1. Populist Theory: Public Opinion as a Basis for Policy

The populist theory suggests policy maker to follow the public opinion while formulating the public policies. It is most democratic method of making public policy. In this theory policies are formulated by taking opinion from people. According to this theory, policy makers take public opinion and preference as the base for policy making. In view of Edward III and Sharkansky, public opinion is perhaps the most straight forward, democratic manner of making public policy. In view of Lineberry, democracy is a normative theory of policy making, emphasising should or ought rather than is or does. From these both views, what can be concluded is that it is most democratic and simple method of public policy making (Reejal, 1995: 182-183).


The limitations or criticisms of populist theories are as follows:

i. Opinions on policy:

Many people do not have strong opinion on issues. Some of the policy opinion held by people are weak and subject to change over a short periods of time. They adopt their views on an issue to confirm with electoral choice made for reasons of party affiliation or candidate image.

Many people also respond to policy questions without giving extensive consideration to the issue raised.

Most voters do not care about public policy.

ii. Reception of public opinion:

Policy maker at the National and state level are generally of higher socio-economic status than majority of citizens. As a result, they may be insensitive to views or experience of persons of lower status. Another class related problem is that many citizens with lower income and less education do not speak the same language as their elected representative.

iii. Incongruence of public opinion and public policy:

Many important public policy contrary to the sentiments of the general public. The main reason that public policy and public opinion are not yet closely linked as democratic theory implies that opinion distribution and opinion intensity are seldom identical.

Very few voters or public have strong opinion on public issues. Very few people (less 50% in most of developed and developing countries) voter in the election. Yet many voters base their choices on party affiliation or candidate’s position on issue. Therefore, only public opinion can not be used in policy making.

iv. Influence of policy makers on public opinion

According to the populist theory, public views are the basis of public policy making. So the public opinions or views must not be molded by policy makers. However, the policy makers influence the public views using various techniques like controlling information, harassment of the press, manipulation of symbols etc.

2. Rational Comprehensive Theory of Decision Making: Policy as Efficient Goal Achievement (Rationalism: Policy as Maximum Social Gain)

A rational policy is one which is designed to achieve maximum social gain, that is government should choose policies resulting in gains to society that exceed costs by the greater amount, and government should refrain from policies if cost are not exceeded by gains. A rational policy is one which is correctly designed to maximize net value achievement (Dye, 2002: 16-19). The rationality percept emphasises that policy making is making a choice among the policy alternatives on rational ground. Rational policy making is to choose the best option.

Thomas Dye evaluates rationality with efficiency. A policy is rational when it is most efficient, that is, if the ratio between the values it achieves and the value if sacrifices is positive and higher than any other policy alternatives. The idea of efficiency involves that calculation of all social, political and economic values sacrificed or achieved by a public policy, not just those that can be measured in monetary terms. The also argues that policy should be adopted benefits exceed costs. Among policy alternatives, decision maker should choose the policy that produces greatest benefit over cost. To select the rational policy, policy makers must know all the policy alternatives available, ratios of benefits to costs of each policy alternative and select the most efficient policy alternative (Ibid).

3 Incremental Theory (Incrementalism: Policy as a Variation on the Past)

Incremental Theory views public policy as a continuation of past government activities with only incremental modifications. This theory of public policy making was first presented by Charles E. Lindblom. According to him, decision makers do not annually review the whole range of existing and proposed policies, identify societal goals, research benefits and cost of alternative policies in achieving these goals, rank order of preferences for each policy alternative in term of maximum net benefits and then make a selection on the basis of all relevant information. On the contrary, constraints of time, information and cost prevent policy makers from identifying the full range of policy alternatives and their consequences. Constrains of politics prevent the establishment of clear cut social goals and accurate calculation of costs and benefits. The incremental theory recognises the impractical nature of “rational comprehensive” policy making and describes a more conservative process of decision making (Dye, 2002: 19).

Incrementalism is conservative in the existing programmers, policies and expenditure are considered as a base, and attention is concentrated on new programmes and policies on increase, decrease or modification of correct programmes. Policy makers generally accept the legitimacy of established programmes and tacitly or silently agree to continue previous policies.

The incremental theory in policy making is used become of insufficient time information, or money to investigate all the alternatives to existing policy. Similarly, incrementalism is important in reducing conflict, maintaining stability and preserving political system itself. It is also easier for the government of a pluralist or multicultural society to continue existing programme rather than to

4. Mixed- Scanning Theory

The mixed scanning theory of public policy making was propounded by Etzion in 1972. He rejected rational comprehensive theory on the ground of being unrealistic and undesirable. He also rejected incrementalism as being conservative and status quo oriented. In view of these facts he provided his own version of decision making theory by combining element of both Rational Comprehensive Theory and Incrementalism to which calls a third approach to decision making. This approach, according to him, is neither as utopian in its assumption as the Rational Comprehensive Theory nor conservative as Incrementalism (Reejal, 1995:227).

Mixed-scanning theory differentiates decisions into two types: fundamental decision and incremental decisions. Fundamental decision are made by exploring the main alternatives of the goals whose overview is feasible and the incremental decisions are made with in the contest set by the fundamental decisions and reviews. Thus, this theory helps to reduce shortcomings of both theories: Incrementalism and Rationalism. Etzioni claims three advantages on behalf of mixed –scanning theory (Ibid, 228-229). They are as follows:

i) This theory well recognises the fact that decisions vary in magnitude Fundamental decisions give direction to the incremental decisions where as incremental decisions lead to fundamental decision.

ii) This theory allows division makes to design the decision making strategy according to their own situational context.

iii) One can also argue that depending upon the situational context, both Rationalism and Incrementalism can be revelent as strategies of decision making.

5. Limited or Bounded Rationality Theory

The limited or bounded rationality theory was propounded by Herbert Simon .He explained organizations in real rather than ideal terms in his book titled “Administrative Behavior” which was first published in 1947. He criticised weaknesses of classical politics- administration dichotomy as well as the contradiction in the ‘proverbs’ of classics theory .He recognised efficiency as the primary objective of administration but he also recognised the limits of individuals and organisations to behave rationally (Sapru, 2004:71).

Limited or Bounded rationality theory seeks to shows human behaviour although not rational in the economist’s sense is “in good part intestinally so”. This theory also does not agree Freudian of the human condition that people are not nearly rational as they think themselves to be. This theory argues that these both theories do not help to explain actuality of decision making. The concept of limited or bounded rationality is different from the economists’ and Freudian’s concept. The concept that the Simon developed to describe a rationality which is limited but not irrational is “limited or bounded rationality” (Ibid, 71-72).

According to Simon individual rationality is limited or bounded due to at least three reasons: incomplete knowledge of consequences of choice, imperfect valuation of future consequence and lack of loyalty and sincereness toward the organisations (Reejal, 1995:231). He also argues that the goal of decision making is rationality and rationality can be improved by creation of specialist group and organisation which can deal with routine repetitive decisions, operation of market mechanism, fair judicial or legal methods, use of rational techniques and computers and improvements in level of public information (Sapru, 2004: 73-74).

6. Constraints Theory:

The constraints theory of decision making has been jointly propounded by Edward III and Sharansky. In their theory, they focus on the larger context in which policy makers work while pursuing their examination of the problems and predicaments of policy makers, they discuss two types of constraints: constraints imposed by the nature of the economy and constraints originating in the character of government and politics. Both limit the number of viable alternatives and there by circumscribe a decision maker range of discretion (Reejal, 1995:232-233).

Economic and political constraints which influence decision makers while making policy decisions are discussed separately as follows:

i) Economic Constraints:

Various aspects of the economy influence public policy by serving either as a target of policies or as a source of demands and sources that shape policy. Many policies such as fiscal and monetary policies, spending policies, regulatory policies etc. are directly or indirectly aimed at increasing economic develop development. All the economic and other policies are made considering the constraints of existing economic resources of the country. There exists two way interaction between public policies and economic development.

It means that when people become economically well off and educated they demand more policies than the uneducated and poorer people.

ii) Political constraints:

The nature of political constraints that limit the number of viable alternatives and there by circumscribe a decision makers range of discretion are as follows:

a. Political culture:

Every society has a culture that differentiates the values and life style of its members from those of other societies. Political culture limits the choices available to officials. Some alternatives are not politically feasible because they violate important public values and beliefs.

b) Separation of power

Decision makers can rarely act alone, especially on important issues. The ruling party or government can not make decision alone, it has to compromise with opposition.

c) Weight of history

History also influences on public policy making. Without considering established traditions and programmes, decisions can not be made.

d) Committed Resources:

The previous commitments of existing resources also constraints the public policy making. The large proportion of current resources has to be allocated to previously determined programmes.

e) Fragmentation of Administrative Responsibility

Fragmentation of administrative responsibility constraints policy makers in the selection of alternatives. The single programme is kept under the different departments and agencies which are largely independent. Such division of administrative responsibility creates great deal of overlap.

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