The public policy making process plays a central role in the lives of every person on the planet. The main purpose of the government is to have lawmakers set policy and then have government workers carry out those policies. They impact the life of every citizen, from how and when we vote to where we can park and what does and does not constitute a crime. 

Understanding how the policy making process works is one of the focuses of an online Bachelor of Science in Public Administration program. Those who aspire to leadership positions in government will graduate from the program ready to take on the challenges of guiding public policy at the local, state and federal levels. 

How Public Policy Works 

Public policy involves actions taken by public officials and public institutions to meet the challenges of real-world issues. Scholars have a variety of definitions. The Center for Civic Education defines public policy as what a government official (including school officials, city council members, county supervisors, the U.S. Congress, etc.) “does or does not do about a problem that comes before them for consideration and possible action. “ 

Public policies can differ based on political affiliation or the type of challenge under consideration. Typically, officials create public policy in response to a problem and involve what the government will do to address the problem. Public policy can take the form of a new law, city ordinance, or government regulation.  

Steps of the Policy Making Cycle 

The main idea of creating policy is to improve life for members of the public. Officials design policies that move the public closer to a desired state or public goal. Even if the ideas come from outside government, the creation of policy falls to public officials. 

Harold Lasswell, an important figure in the development of policy sciences at the University of Chicago and Yale University in the 1950s, created a policy making model still used today. It contains five distinct steps, according to the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 

Agenda Setting  

In this first stage, a problem or challenge that impacts the public is initially identified. Solutions are put forward by interested parties both inside and outside of the government. Agenda setting typically goes through these stages:  

  • Systemic agenda. All issues public officials feel are worth addressing 
  • Institutional agenda. Distilled from the systemic agenda list, these issues are chosen as the ones policymakers should analyze and consider acting on. 
  • Discretionary agenda. This list comes directly from lawmakers, not from the systemic and institutional agendas. 
  • Decision agenda. The final list of issues that policymakers will consider for action. 

Policy Formation  

This step involves the development of policy options within the government. This occurs after officials narrow the range of possible policy choices by excluding infeasible options. In this step, different interested parties attempt to have their favored policy solution rank high among the remaining options. This step often involves a period of intense debate. 

Decision Making 

In this step, government leaders decide on a particular course of action. Ideally, it is the course that will best address the problem for the most members of the public.  

Policy Implementation 

In this step of the policy making process, governments put the chosen public policy option into effect. Officials use the tools of public administration that impact the distribution of government goods and services or make changes in how the government taxes the public. The changes should reflect the sentiments and values of the affected parties. 

Policy Evaluation 

Interested parties both within and without the government monitor the impact of the policy and determine if it is achieving the intended goal. This can lead to further changes in public policy done in light of the impact of the original policy. 

 In reality, the policy making process is not typically so linear. However, these five steps provide a framework to better understand public policy formation and help students identify the strengths and weaknesses of the system.