Types of Public Policy

You may not realise it, but much of your day-to-day life is shaped by the work of public administrators. The scope of public administration is vast. As members of the general public, we’re all subject to public policy and the decisions of policymakers.

Public policymakers bear incredible responsibility as there are many different stakeholders and their decisions are far-reaching. All the rules and laws around Covid are public policy examples that have made recent news headlines. Those rules are put together by public health administration workers and other policymakers.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the scope of public administration and the different types of public policy to show just why public policy is so important, from ensuring our health to maintaining law and order on our streets. We will look closer at the meaning and significance of public policy and the different approaches. We’ll also discuss some of the challenges faced in public administration and in implementing effective public policy. Lastly, we explain how to study public administration.

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What is public policy?

Before going on to look at the scope and types of public policy, it will be useful to get a clear understanding of what exactly public policy actually is and to provide a public works administration definition.

Public policy is defined by Britannica as the “set of actions — plans, laws, and behaviours — adopted by a government”. Although he was criticised for oversimplifying the issue, Thomas Dyre gave a succinct definition when he said “public policy is whatever governments choose to do or not to do”.

Public policy is made up of a country’s laws and constitution. Importantly it also includes things like a country’s plans. Collins notes that the term is especially used for “policy not yet enunciated in specific rules”.

This means that public policy includes a highly detailed and prescriptive set of rules and regulations, such as traffic rules and fines for example. But policy can be more vague and could instead entail an attitude or intention. Where the challenge often comes is in bringing the ideas and intentions of a policy into actual effect.

For example, South Africa has taken a policy position expressing the intention of creating more jobs and driving the economy, however actual success has been rather limited.

Recent public policy examples that we’ve all experienced would include the mask mandate, curfews and various bans in response to the threat of Covid-19. While these were noticeable because of the swift and drastic change they brought, public policy also affects us in many less obvious ways.

Why is public policy important

As we’ve mentioned, public policy is far-reaching and impacts all people. Not only does public policy dictate the laws of a country, it is also responsible for the allocations of budgets and priorities.

Granted the circumstances have been unusual for the past two years, but over this time public policy has caused dramatic changes to the lives of everyone in South Africa, as it did in most other countries too. As a result of decisions made by policymakers, the entire country went into an unprecedented lockdown. Business ground to a halt and we all stayed home waiting to be told when we could go out and what we could do.

Public administration may not appear very exciting and public policymakers are unlikely to feature on movie posters, but there are few occupations that could claim as important an influence.

How is public policy implemented?

Public policy is formulated and carried out by the government, however, the government itself is broken into separate roles with differing responsibilities. In South Africa, although we usually talk of Pretoria as the state capital, we actually have three different capital cities. There is one for each branch of government. Pretoria is the administrative capital, Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.

Each branch has a different role to play in public policy and law. The legislative branch is responsible for making policy. It is then the job of the executive branch to implement the policy, leaving the task of interpreting the policy or law to the judicial branch.

What are the different public administration approaches?

From the theoretical approach to public administration theory, there are three common public administration approaches. These are Classical Public Administration Theory, New Public Management Theory, and Postmodern Public Administration Theory. However, from a more practical and less academic perspective, there are three other approaches commonly used for public administration: managerial, political and legal.

As societies across the globe seek to become more equitable and fair, so too have approaches to public policy evolved. In rather simplified terms the approach has shifted from a focus on efficiency and applying a one-size-fits-all approach to a focus on social issues.

More recent approaches have shifted the focus from issues of efficiency to those of efficacy. The focus now is more on the actual impact on those affected as well as various related ethical issues.

Newer approaches recognise that society is not a uniform thing but rather composed of many diverse individuals, each with their own values, wants and needs.

What is the scope of public administration?

Public policy exists across many spheres of life and it covers a wide range of issues. Some common examples of issues that require a national policy include:

  • Criminal justice
  • Economic policy
  • Education policy
  • Transport policy
  • Environmental policy
  • Health policy
  • Social welfare policy
  • Foreign policy

Something you may notice from the above list is how this closely resembles the various national departments in our country. In some cases, such as education, there’s such a wide scope of public policy that it is split between two departments.

Types of educational administration

In South Africa, we have the Department of Basic Education and we have the Department of Higher Education and Training. They each have their respective responsibility in creating, carrying out and assessing education policy.

To give a feel of just how wide the scope is of public policy and public management, here is a full list of all of South Africa’s public entities.

Among that long list there are several agencies that just focus on education alone. They are the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the Education Labour Relations Council (ELRC) and Universities South Africa (USAf).

The University of Pretoria is one of 25 public universities that are members of USAf, which is mandated to “create an environment in which universities can prosper and thrive in South Africa, thus enabling them to contribute to the social, cultural and economic development of our country”.

The debate over foreign policy

There is some debate as to whether foreign policy should be included under public policy. Some draw a distinction between the two, arguing that public policy entails all domestic policies and that foreign policy is therefore outside of the scope. However, as the authors wrote in their introduction to the book Foreign Policy as Public Policy?: Promises and pitfalls, “foreign policy has in many ways become more similar to (and intertwined with) ‘ordinary’ public policies”.

This approach recognises the interconnected nature of foreign and domestic policy. For example, a country may pursue good relations with another country in order to secure imports needed for local manufacturing. In turn, it may also seek good relations to ensure a market for exports.

Policy challenges

Where policymakers can hit difficulties are when there are conflicts. These conflicts could arise when there are differences in stated policy or in the interpretation of that policy. Sometimes there can be overlap between policies in otherwise separate spheres where different parties have competing interests.

For the purposes of this example, we will include foreign policy within public policy and look briefly at South Africa’s recent conflicting statements over the Russian military conflict with Ukraine.

The first official statement made by the presidency over the matter sought a peaceful solution and used diplomatically chosen wording. A second statement issued by the Department of International Affairs used much stronger wording and called for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine. This second statement had been issued unseen by our president, and President Cyril Ramaphosa was reportedly unhappy at the tone of the statement and said that it “did not reflect his government’s position”.

In this case, there is a conflict between our default foreign policy position of opposing all armed conflict and the competing aims of increasing trade and relations with Russia, a major trading partner and a co-member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping of nations.

This is a classic example of how challenging it can be to maintain a consistent policy position, as well as showing the importance of adaptability to changing circumstances.

How to study public administration

If you already work in the public sector and would like to become more involved in the challenges of improving society and advancing public policy, then the University of Pretoria’s Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management (PDPM) may well give you the boost that you need for your career. The fully online course equips graduates to enter the field and engage critically with current policy debate.

UP also offers a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Health, which has a focus on public health administration and healthcare management.

If you would like to read and learn more about public administration, please have a look at these two older blog posts.