Brief Genealogy of Public Policy

Deldon traces the historical roots of public policy to the policy sciences, an approach credited to Harold D. Lasswell who advocated the use of rigorous applied sciences in the mid-twentieth century to issues pertaining to government and governance. In Lasswell words, the policy sciences were made up of “the social and psychological sciences; in general, all the sciences that provide facts and principles of direct importance for the making of important decisions in government, business and cultural life (in Muth 1990, 17)”. From the composition of the policy sciences, we can see how public policy has inherent in its hereditary tree interdisciplinary traits. This is further buttressed by the following quote:

Recognizing the interdisciplinary nature of this endeavor, Lasswell and his colleagues called for the merger of the discipline of political science with insights from sociology, economics, business, law, and also to reach out to physicists and biologists (Lasswell 1951, 3–15)

Allison Graham quoting Rothwell (1951) stated that Lasswell’s policy sciences approach had as an ultimate goal to reduce the errors of judgment made by policy makers, thereby making courses of action surer to the attainment of intended goals.

Jay M. Shafritz traces the roots further back to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the British philosopher and advocate of Utilitarianism who theorized that self interest was the main motivator and hence governments should strive to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. Shafritz names Bentham as a founder of the science of policy analysis because whereas his contemporaries and the political analysts of his day focused on the grand philosophies about the state, war and politics propounded by ancient Greek philosophers, Bentham focused on the nitty gritty of running a state and how and why public policies affected people. He came to a conclusion that the aim of all policy was to maximize the welfare of the greatest number and he developed techniques and methods to that end. He was the first to scrupulously and mathematical apply the principle of utility which dates back to the ancient Greeks to solving policy questions. He was the first to use the results of his empirical investigations of public policy problems and social facts as a basis for challenging and reforming the law. The frontier of this type of legal argument was further pushed by Louis D. Brandeis hence the name Brandeis Brief. Bentham urged policymakers not to make decisions based on party lines or based on personal affiliations or religion but to make decisions based on that which would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. While Bentham’s utilitarian concept can certainly be challenged, it gives a reference point for the beginning of applying the sciences to public policy problems.


Another important aspect of public policy is the uneasy marriage between positive and normative analysis. Traditionally political science study was associated with a value-neutral approach to politics. Political scientists sought to discover what is and not what ought to be in the political realm. This distinguished political science as a positive science from opinionizing, social engineering, or political philosophy. Laswell and Kapland in 1950 argued that there were two distinct components of political theory—the empirical propositions of political science and the value judgments of political doctrine. Empirical research focused on facts, whereas normative theorizing (”political theory”) had values as a focus. Theorists did not concern themselves with rigorous, methodologically informed empirical study and empiricists did not concern themselves with rigorous, philosophically informed normative study.
But in modern public policy, the student of the field has the possibility to concern himself/herself with the study of both the empirical propositions of political science and/or the value judgments of political doctrine. With this marriage a policy analyst or researcher can “subject questions of value to empirical test”. In my opinion there is no justification for a divorce. Social science needs to become more practical and relevant to society’s problems and the marriage allows that. Conversely, social relevance needs the empirical backing of social science and its techniques to help generate tried and tested solutions which are not just wishful or philosophical reasonings but tested analysis. Of course, the intricacies of this marriage are not so easy to work out but what we do know is that it is better to marry these two than to have a separation.


Another major contribution to the public policy debate was made by David Easton (1917- ) when he applied Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s systems theory to modern political analysis. Viewing the political through the systems theory approach profoundly impacted public policy analysis. In a way, this approach offers the policymaker a different lens/framework with which to perceive and appraise the complexities of interchanges within the political environment and between the political environment and other societal environments thus effectively enabling a policy analyst to understand individual units of the political and social system, and better gauge impacts and consequences of specific courses of action or inaction. But before jumping the gun, what is a system? A system is any organized collection of parts that are united by prescribed interactions. A systems approach is any analytical framework that views situations as systems. Every system is made up individual units, inputs, processes, outputs, feedback loops and the environment in which it operates and with which it continuously interacts. The quality of life of any system depends on the inputs that are fed into it. These inputs once in the system undergo transformation through processes and come out as outputs. The outputs in turn have ripple effects on the stability of the system that could be positive or negative. For that reason careful understanding of the political system and its individual parts is needed to craft policies that will generate outputs with little or no negative impacts on the system and society. The flipside is also true. Sometimes there are changes in the greater environment in which the system operates and the system has to adapt to for e.g. technological, global and environmental changes in order to maintain stability.

Owing to all the above mentioned reasons, systems thinking approach is indispensible for a public policy analyst or maker. This is even ‘truer’ with the ever increasing technological advances that have turned our world into a global city. Tinkering with money supply in the USA for example has effects on the level of employment within USA and other economies that are connected to USA. Fiscal impropriety in the USA and other developed nations for instance has ramifications in villages in the Congo. As John Donne touted many years ago in his famous poem, No man is an island to himself.


Public Policy as a relatively young field of study is enriched by its interdisciplinary nature. It exists to solve problems. It’s a demanding field of study which requires understanding of complex social and political environments within which policy is formulated and implemented. It requires a broad understanding across many disciplines and an astute comprehension of the constellation of philosophies, ideas, institutions, and interests that make up policy activity. This is not easy because no one person can be the jack of all trades hence a need to take advantage of network knowledge and to network with other specialists from other disciplines. Knowledge and how it is derived plays a central role in shaping policy. The use of science to validate values or normative ideas is important to reduce errors of judgment. All of the above constitute part of the raw materials i.e. the disciplines and perspectives needed in making public policy.


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