One of the most basic and yet most complex processes in political and administrative systems is decision-making. It involves, among other things, defining problems and finding possible solutions. It also involves different needs, interests and explanations related to social phenomena. Ultimately, the complexity lies in finding ways to “significantly alter the way in which collective problems are addressed” (Dente and Subirats, 2014).
In the public sphere, decision-making can be made visible in the design and implementation of strategies that directly impact situations defined as collective problems. The latter is what is defined as “public policy” , a concept that we will develop in an introductory manner in this article.
What is public policy?
The word “politics” is a term that has its origins in the most classical traditions of philosophy and can have many definitions, depending on the purpose of its use. The most modern definitions refer to the issues that have to do with the exercise of power . And in this sense, the term is also related to the intention of solving collective problems, which in turn, links powers and public expenditures with everyday life.
If we also understand the “public” as a common space, where both conflicts and solutions are generated , we can say that a “public policy” is a set of objectives, decisions and actions that a government carries out to give solution to problems that are considered a priority in a particular context (Tamayo, 1997). Some examples of public policy are the set of measures that are implemented to manage health, education, culture, sports, among others, and the costs and benefits that this entails.
In this sense, public decisions and public policies are strongly related elements , but they do not refer to the same process. The second is a much more extensive mechanism, which is composed of different decisions.
The public policy construction cycle
The set of objectives, decisions and actions that make up a public policy is carried out through a complex process that starts with the detection of a problem. The latter has to be sufficiently important to receive more or less immediate political and governmental attention. In other words, to place it on the government’s agenda , and thus begin to propose different solutions that significantly impact the problematic situation.
The process of making public policy then follows different phases, which have traditionally been divided as follows: defining the problem, designing alternative solutions, deciding on an alternative, implementing it, evaluating the results obtained.
About the analysis process
As we have seen, public policy is the set of actions that are implemented to provide a solution to a collective problem, previously identified. Hand in hand with this, we can speak of another process: the analysis of public policy, which occurs when the scope and results of the actions that have been implemented are evaluated . Or, when evaluating the objectives, the actions of the different actors, the networks that were generated, the means that were used, among other elements inherent to the process of carrying out a specific policy.
Being the result of a process, the isolated phases of public policy creation have no meaning or effectiveness in themselves, but rather in relation to the others, which becomes visible precisely in the analysis. For example, it is possible to define and adequately detect a problem, but make a mistake when implementing the solution . Or it may happen that there is an adequate implementation plan, without there being a well-defined problem, or without the implementation plan corresponding to the real problem.
For all the above reasons, the concept of public policy can also be understood as a term that is operational for analysts, although, due to the complexity of each of the phases that we have described above, corresponds only partially to the implementation of each one .
Who makes them? Government and citizen participation
The processes through which public policy decisions are made are closely dependent on the activity of different actors, as well as on a plurality of needs and interests .
Originally, and in many contexts, the process of making public policy was a task reserved for political powers and specialists. That is, for one or several actors considered competent to implement any of the phases that make up the public policy process.
However, since specialized actors often turn out to be unaware of the problem and the impacts of its solution, the process of design, implementation, evaluation and analysis has recently moved towards more participatory mechanisms, where the people who will be affected by the policy in question are included. The latter has made the processes of public policy creation more complex in terms of decision-making , where various mirages may arise regarding the participation of different actors.
In very general terms, the participatory processes have emerged after recognizing that the government, traditionally in charge of carrying out public policies, as well as “politics” itself, are nothing more than a group of people and institutions with political and legal powers to make decisions, which impact the common spaces. Thus, the people who are also part of these spaces can be considered as competent in political terms.
- Dente, B. and Subirats, J. (2014). Public decisions. Analysis and study of public policy decision-making processes. Editorial Ariel: Barcelona.
- Tamayo, M. (1997). El análisis de las políticas públicas. In Bañón, R. and Carrillo, E. (Eds.). La nueva Administración Pública. Alianza Universidad: Madrid.