IntroductionPublic policy is an academic field that emerged decades ago. It refers to a relatively stable and purposive course of action which are taken by governments or public actors in addressing social problems. Since the 1950’s, the world has witnessed the changing nature of the Government’s role in addressing social problems whereby much emphasis is being put on setting overall direction through policy and planning, engaging stake holders and citizens. Sometimes, the Government role involves empowering stakeholders or partners in the delivery of programs and/or services. In order to better understand the term public policy, it is important that one understands the terms Policy and Decision as the two terms can easily be confused. The aim of this paper is therefore to define the term Public Policy with a view to understand it.Public PolicyPublic policy can basically be defined as a decision made by government to either act, or not act in order to resolve a problem. It is what the government chooses to do, or not to do.
Public policy may also be defined as a course of action that guides a range of related actions in a given field as it provides guidance to governments and accountability links to citizens. However, it should be borne in mind that public policy has no distinct definition as many scholars define it differently not only because that its application depends on the dimension on which one wants to express but also because of the different ways the scholars view and understand. This render the term public policy not to have a universal definition. For example, Buur L. and Kyed Maria H. (2007) define public policy as the broad framework of ideas and values within which decisions are taken and action or inaction is pursued by the government in relation to some issue or problem. On the other hand, Dye T.R (2012) defines public policy as a proposed course of action of a person, group or government within a given environment providing obstacles and opportunity which the policy was proposed to utilize and overcome.
Public policy can therefore be simply understood as a choice or decision made by government, political actors or group of actors that guides subsequent actions in similar circumstances in terms of the means and ways of achieving a perceived objective or outcome. There are two basic types of public policy namely the vertical policy which is formulated and developed within a single structure that has the authority and resources for implementation. Vertical policy basically starts with broad overarching policy commonly referred to as corporate or framework policy.
Another type of public policy is what is called horizontal policy. It is formulated and developed between parts of an organization or among components that are in similar hierarchical position and are sometimes referred to as integrated policy. It is however also important to be able to distinguish the term policy from decision.
The main deference between the two is that a policy is bigger than a decision as it encompasses a series of more specific decisions which sometimes are in a rational sequence. Usually, a decision is associated with a decision maker like for example, what the former president late Dr HK Banda did in 1992 when he directed that all teachers especially from the northern region should teach in their home districts or regions. Another example of a decision was what the late professor Bingu Wa Muthalika did in directing that anyone who wanted to hold a demonstration should first pay two million kwacha (MK2,000,000) in order to get permission for the demonstration. These two decisions were not government policies although the government institutions implemented them. On the other hand a policy is a law, regulation, procedure, administrative action, incentive, or voluntary practice of governments and other institutions. It comes from those officials who have legitimate authority to impose normative guidelines for action. In simple terms, policy refers to a distinct path of action which is suitable for the pursuit of desired goals within a particular context, directing the decision making of an organization or individual.
It involves some study of decisions by tracing multiple interactions among many individuals, groups and organizations. According to Clarke Cochran et al, (1999), Policy defined as is a course of action or principle of actions adopted or proposed by government, party, business or individual to address a problem and he added that it is a course of action that guides a range of related actions in a given field. Michael Hall (2005), concurs with Cochran that policy is a course of action especially based on some declared and respected principles. A good example is the way the Malawi agriculture policy was formulated. It emanated from the executive pronouncements which the late professor Bingu Wa Muthalika made during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2007 in which he expressed is vision to transform Malawi from a predominantly importing nation to a predominantly exporting nation.
He said he would achieve this through the Universal Subsidy program, greenbelt initiative and the Nsanje inland port. After the stakeholders studied and analyzed these decisions, they came up with not only agriculture policy but also trade policy. This therefore concludes that policy is made by elected officials acting in concert with advisors from the higher levels of the administration. It often comes in the form of general statements about priorities, written regulations or guidelines, procedures and/or standards to be achieved. Policy is made in response to some sort of problems that require attention and on behalf of the public.
Clarke Cochran (1999). It is oriented toward goal or desired end state and it is aimed at providing solutions to a problem. A Public policy is therefore the broad strategy that government uses to undertake its job or the relatively stable set of purposive governmental behaviors that address matters of concern to some part of society. James Anderson (2000).