Public policy is the principled guide to action taken by the administrative executive branches of the state with regard to a class of issues, in a manner consistent with law and institutional customs. There has recently been a movement for greater use of evidence in guiding policy decisions. Proponents of evidence-based policy argue that high quality scientific evidence, rather than tradition, intuition, or political ideology, should guide policy decisions.
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The foundation of public policy is composed of national constitutional laws and regulations. Further substrates include both judicial interpretations and regulations which are generally authorized by legislation. Public policy is considered strong when it solves problems efficiently and effectively, serves and supports governmental institutions and policies, and encourages active citizenship.
Other scholars define public policy as a system of "courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives." Public policy is commonly embodied in "constitutions, legislative acts, and judicial decisions."
In the United States, this concept refers not only to the result of policies, but more broadly to the decision-making and analysis of governmental decisions. As an academic discipline, public policy is studied by professors and students at public policy schools of major universities throughout the country. The U.S. professional association of public policy practitioners, researchers, scholars, and students is the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.
Government actions and process
Public policy making can be characterized as a dynamic, complex, and interactive system through which public problems are identified and countered by creating new public policy or by reforming existing public policy.
The large set of actors in the public policy process, such as politicians, civil servants, lobbyists, domain experts, and industry or sector representatives, use a variety of tactics and tools to advance their aims, including advocating their positions publicly, attempting to educate supporters and opponents, and mobilizing allies on a particular issue.
Many actors can be important in the public policy process, but government officials ultimately choose public policy in response to the public issue or problem at hand. In doing so, government officials are expected to meet public sector ethics and take the needs of all project stakeholders into account.
Since societies have changed in the past decades, the public policy making system changed too. In the 2010s, public policy making is increasingly goal-oriented, aiming for measurable results and goals, and decision-centric, focusing on decisions that must be taken immediately.
Furthermore, mass communications and technological changes such as the widespread availability of the Internet have caused the public policy system to become more complex and interconnected. The changes pose new challenges to the current public policy systems and pressures leaders to evolve to remain effective and efficient.
Evidence-based policy (EBP) is a term often applied in multiple fields of public policy to refer to situations whereby policy decisions are informed by rigorously established objective evidence. Underlying many of the calls for evidence-based policy is often a (stated or unstated) concern with fidelity to scientific good practice, reflecting the belief that social goals are best served when scientific evidence is used rigorously and comprehensively to inform decisions, rather than in a piecemeal, manipulated, or cherry-picked manner. The move towards evidence-based policy has its roots in the larger movement towards evidence-based practice.
Some have promoted particular types of evidence as 'best' for policymakers to consider, including scientifically rigorous evaluation studies such as randomized controlled trials to identify programs and practices capable of improving policy-relevant outcomes. However, some areas of policy-relevant knowledge are not well served by quantitative research, leading to debate about the methods and instruments that are considered critical for the collection of relevant evidence. For instance, policies that are concerned with human rights, public acceptability, or social justice may require other evidence than what randomized trials provide, or may require moral philosophical reasoning in addition to considerations of evidence of intervention effect (which randomised trials are principally designed to provide ). Good data, analytical skills and political support to the use of scientific information, as such, are typically seen as the important elements of an evidence-based approach.
In the UK
Although evidence-based policy can be traced as far back as the fourteenth century, it was more recently popularized by the Blair Government in the United Kingdom. The Blair Government said they wanted to end the ideological led-based decision making for policy making. For example, a UK Government white paper published in 1999 ("Modernising Government") noted that Government must "produce policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms".
Evidence-based policy is associated with Adrian Smith because in his 1996 presidential address to the Royal Statistical Society, Smith questioned the current process of policy making and urged for a more “evidence-based approach” commenting that it has “valuable lessons to offer”.
Some policy scholars now avoid using the term evidence-based policy, using others such as evidence informed. This language shift allows continued thinking about the underlying desire to improve evidence use in terms of its rigor or quality, while avoiding some of the key limitations or reductionist ideas at times seen with the evidence-based language. Still, the language of evidence-based policy is widely used and, as such, can be interpreted to reflect a desire for evidence to be used well or appropriately in one way or another – such as by ensuring systematic consideration of rigorous and high quality policy relevant evidence, or by avoiding biased and erroneous applications of evidence for political ends.
As an academic discipline, public policy brings in elements of many social science fields and concepts, including economics, sociology, political economy, social policy, program evaluation, policy analysis, and public management, all as applied to problems of governmental administration, management, and operations. At the same time, the study of public policy is distinct from political science or economics, in its focus on the application of theory to practice. While the majority of public policy degrees are master's and doctoral degrees, there are several universities that offer undergraduate education in public policy.
Traditionally, the academic field of public policy focused on domestic policy. However, the wave of economic globalization that occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries created a need for a subset of public policy that focused on global governance, especially as it relates to issues that transcend national borders such as climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and economic development. Consequently, many traditional public policy schools had to adjust their curricula to better suit this new policy landscape, as well as develop entirely new curricula altogether.
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