What I mean by Public Policy

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As if a topic like “Public Policy” isn’t adequately off-putting in itself, let’s really pile on and start with trying to define it. Why not lose everyone right at the get?

From Wikipedia–Policy:

A policy is a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes.

and Public Policy:

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.

A bit further down we get closer to my intent:

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.”

where in my view the list after (my added emphasis) are potential implementation steps of action plans.

In my use a Policy is a plan of action (from here, a Plan) addressing a given concern. That Plan might be to make no changes to the current Plan, and the current Plan might be to take no specific actions relevant to the concern at hand, but that’s still a Plan, and so a Policy.

I don’t accept the “principled guide” and “system of principles” definitions. I’m a Consequentialist, particularly regarding Public Policy. It’s the impact on Outcomes that distinguish Policies one from another.

Some proclaim Principles as a way to dismiss the need for any Plan, arguing that the following the Principles will produce the best possible Outcome, and so no Plan is necessary. I find this insistence supremely unhelpful. In large part it’s a way of expressing an opinion that positions any disagreement as unprincipled, leaving no room for alternatives.

While inadequate in themselves as Public Policy, Principles can play important roles. When applied consistently Principles can make good Criteria with which to evaluate alternatives. Arguments can cite Principles to support or oppose some Idea. Principles can shape the articulation of preferred Outcomes.

Finally I don’t limit Public Policy to government executive administration for two reasons. Public Policy concerns touch all of us, and especially in a

… government of the people, by the people, for the people, … Gettysburg Address

putting Public Policy on the “government” hardly absolves its citizens of active involvement. More fundamentally, Public Policies address complex domains like health care, education, climate change, inequality, and the like. Such domains comprise lightly constrained participants and stakeholders, each with their own intentions, perceptions, and interpretations, each influencing and influenced by the others, all in constant flux. An effective Public Policy, a plan of action, must take this complexity into account. The government might play a role, or multiple roles, but the nature of complex domains precludes requires Policies implemented by more than just the government.

Institutional stability is the part of conservatism that makes sense to me. Disrupting “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior” sounds risky. Inconsistent, unpredictable patterns of behavior in our legal, health care, education, and similar systems sounds unlikely to improve the quality of one’s life. But that risk in no way justifies inaction. The nature of many people’s reality is unacceptable.

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