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Policy Change

Mario Levesque

Policy Defined

There are many definitions of public policy such as  Harold Lasswell’s (1951) who defined it as “the most important choices”.  Yet this is vague.  The one definition I tend to use is by Thomas Dye (1984): “whatever governments choose to do or not to do” in response to a problem”.

I like this definition because it reflects a conscious choice that is made by government officials to deliberately act in response to something or to deliberately not act in response to something.  I always stress to my students that not acting is just as powerful, if not more, an action as acting and needs to be considered/explored.  For example, if government officials are aware of contamination of drinking water supplies but choose not to act on the information, they may be risking the health or lives of its citizens.  In such a case, note that government officials are aware of the problem and choose not to act.  This is different than a situation where they are unaware of a problem (and therefore do not act) such as was the case before the carcinogenic effects of asbestos, a natural mineral with excellent insulating properties, was known.

More broadly, any action or inaction on the part of officials will be affected by guides as to what can be done in any given area, that is, the policy framework.  Frameworks are affected by ideas in good currency (broad ideas generally acceptable in current society; e.g.  up until the recent recession, deficit and debt reduction, less government...), the institutional context (legislative framework), actors (government officials, interest groups, businesses...), and economics.

Note that actors include politicians and their political agenda:  They consider whether the issue is relevant, whose views to amplify or dismiss, how to frame the problem (largely based on their own understanding of issues) and what solutions are “realistic”.

All this leads to a policy discourse, a situation where contested or different viewpoints and demands intermingle in search for a resolution. 

But there are two remaining issues that require clarification:  What is a policy and what is a public policy?  A policy, according to Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram (1997), not only includes laws and regulations that govern a particular policy area but also the procedures of implementation—practices, texts, symbols, discourses—items that may often not be formally written down but are very real in practice.  For example, while the speed limit on Canada’s busiest highway, the 401, is posted as 100 km/hr, it is highly unlikely—even unheard of—for someone to receive a speeding ticket for travelling at 110 km/hr.  As is commonly known, police tend to target the “speedsters”—those going over 125 km/hr on the highway.  While the speed limit may be 100 km/hr, in practice it is much greater.

Public policy is policy made in the public interest.  That is, it takes in majority views, the common interest and binding values such as respect for individual diversity.  Governments are at the centre of public policy as they are the only authority capable of acting in the public’s behalf.  This differs from private policy which is what individuals or businesses undertake to govern their personal actions.

Lastly, all of this action leads to policy statements.  This is a situation where the problem and goals to be achieved are defined as is the means by which the problem/goals are to be addressed.

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