What is Public Policy?

A cursory review of literature on public policy reveals the difficulty in coming up with a strong definition of Public Policy that is satisfactory to all actors in this field. As has been pointed out by Wedel, Shore, Feldman and Lathrop “[T]he word “policy” is a concept laden with often quite contradictory meanings; it is a word that can he coded and decoded to convey very ambiguous messages”. Klein and Marmor appear to be in agreement and add that though the skeletal frame of public policy is perceivable and may be reassembled like an exhibit in a museum, the creature itself to whom the frame belongs and its workings remains a mystery. In other words its academic taxonomy remains elusive. Because of this, one can find a plethora of definitions in the literature depending on disciplinary background and value orientation of the scholars. The following are some definitions that have been proffered.


Policy has been defined as “a decision or, more usually, a set of interrelated decisions concerning the selection of goals and the means of achieving them. The identification of
policy as a set or web of decisions is useful in that it underlines the notion  that policy is best seen as a course of action—or inaction—rather than a  single, discrete decision or action”. Robert Eyestone defined public policy as “the relationship of government unit to its environment”.
David Easton defined it as “the authoritative allocation of values for the whole society”. Falola and Salm quote Thomas R. Dye’s definition as “whatever government chooses to do or not to do” and Dye (1998:3) quoted Laswell and Kaplan’s definition as “a projected programme of goals, values and practices”. Klein and Marmor agree with Dye by stating that public policy is what governments do and neglect to do. The list of definitions is seemingly without end but what can be deduced from these definitions is that Public Policy is dynamic and may lend itself to chimeric properties in the sense that it does not lend itself to the straight jacket of any one discipline.


Public policy necessarily comes out of a time and space. It is contextual. If truth be told, though it may be an offspring of the social sciences, its very nature is such that it does not abide within the boundaries of any one discipline. Instead it can be postulated that it exists in the imaginary space between disciplines i.e. it’s contextually interdisciplinary. From this space of interdisciplinarity, public policy draws upon a multiple of disciplines like economics, political science, sociology, philosophy, anthropology etc for its analysis. In a broad sense, one can stretch its nature to say that it’s trans-disciplinary.


Janine R Wedel et al., “Toward an Anthropology of Public Policy”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 600 (2005): 30-51 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25046109> [accessed 22 February 2012].

Rudolf Klein and Theodore R Marmor, “Reflections on Policy Analysis: Putting it Together Again,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, ed. Robert E Goodin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 892.

William H. Park, “Policy,” in Defining Public Administration: Selections from the International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration, ed. Jay M. Shafritz (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 39.

Vayunandan Etakula and Pardeep Sahni, Administrative Theory ([n.p]: PHI Learning, 2010), 250.

David Easton, The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953).

Toyin Falola and Steven J Salm, Globalization and Urbanization in Africa ([n.p]: Africa World Pr, 2006).

Rudolf Klein and Theodore R Marmor, “Reflections on Policy Analysis: Putting it Together Again,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, ed. Robert E Goodin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 892.

Jay Shafritz, Karen Layne and Christopher Borick, Classics of Public Policy, 1st ed. ([n.p]: Longman, 2004), 1.