Public policy refers to the actions taken by government — its decisions that are intended to solve problems and improve the quality of life for its citizens. At the federal level, public policies are enacted to regulate industry and business, to protect citizens at home and abroad, to aid state and city governments and people such as the poor through funding programs, and to encourage social goals.
A policy established and carried out by the government goes through several stages from inception to conclusion. These are agenda building, formulation, adoption, implementation, evaluation, and termination.
Before a policy can be created, a problem must exist that is called to the attention of the government. Illegal immigration, for example, has been going on for many years, but it was not until the 1990s that enough people considered it such a serious problem that it required increased government action. Another example is crime. American society tolerates a certain level of crime; however, when crime rises dramatically or is perceived to be rising dramatically, it becomes an issue for policymakers to address. Specific events can place a problem on the agenda. The flooding of a town near a river raises the question of whether homes should be allowed to be built in a floodplain. New legislation on combating terrorism (the USA Patriot Act, for example) was a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Formulation and adoption
Policy formulation means coming up with an approach to solving a problem. Congress, the executive branch, the courts, and interest groups may be involved. Contradictory proposals are often made. The president may have one approach to immigration reform, and the opposition-party members of Congress may have another. Policy formulation has a tangible outcome: A bill goes before Congress or a regulatory agency drafts proposed rules. The process continues with adoption. A policy is adopted when Congress passes legislation, the regulations become final, or the Supreme Court renders a decision in a case.
The implementation or carrying out of policy is most often accomplished by institutions other than those that formulated and adopted it. A statute usually provides just a broad outline of a policy. For example, Congress may mandate improved water quality standards, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides the details on those standards and the procedures for measuring compliance through regulations. As noted earlier, the Supreme Court has no mechanism to enforce its decisions; other branches of government must implement its determinations. Successful implementation depends on the complexity of the policy, coordination between those putting the policy into effect, and compliance. The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education is a good example. The justices realized that desegregation was a complex issue; however, they did not provide any guidance on how to implement it "with all deliberate speed." Here, implementation depended upon the close scrutiny of circuit and appeals court judges, as well as local and state school board members who were often reluctant to push social change.
Evaluation and termination
Evaluation means determining how well a policy is working, and it is not an easy task. People inside and outside of government typically use cost-benefit analysis to try to find the answer. In other words, if the government is spending x billions of dollars on this policy, are the benefits derived from it worth the expenditure? Cost-benefit analysis is based on hard-to-come-by data that are subject to different, and sometimes contradictory, interpretations.
History has shown that once implemented, policies are difficult to terminate. When they are terminated, it is usually because the policy became obsolete, clearly did not work, or lost its support among the interest groups and elected officials that placed it on the agenda in the first place. In 1974, for example, Congress enacted a national speed limit of 55 miles per hour. It was effective in reducing highway fatalities and gasoline consumption. On the other hand, the law increased costs for the trucking industry and was widely viewed as an unwarranted federal intrusion into an area that belonged to the states to regulate. The law was repealed in 1987.