Public Policy

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

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Concept description

Mel Cappe (reference below, pdf on right) reviews a number of current definitions of public policy and offers his own concise phrase: “systematically using the state to affect peoples’ lives.”

Other definitions highlighted by Cappe include that by Atlas editor, Leslie Pal, (reference below):

“A course of action or inaction chosen by public authorities to address a given problem or interrelated set of problems”

and by Dean Kilpatrick (reference below):

“Public policy can be generally defined as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.”

UK Civil Service Learning (reference below) defines policy making as follows:

“Policy making is an activity intended to achieve the purposes of elected politicians in government. The ‘policies’ that this activity produces can be many different things including formal expression of activities undertaken by government to achieve outcomes e.g., through strategies, announcements, legislation, but also includes current practice, doing nothing, and political activity as well as activity that may not fulfil the goals of government in a simple and direct way.”

“Successful policy depends on:

  • the development and use of a sound evidence base
  • understanding and managing the political context
  • planning from the outset for how the policy will be delivered.

“Policy officials must bring together these three elements to deliver successful outcomes for government.

“There are four areas of activity where these three elements of successful policy apply although they don’t necessarily happen discreetly or in a specific order and engagement happens throughout:

  • Understanding the context
  • Developing the options
  • Getting to a decision
  • Making it happen”

See Policy Profession – UK Civil Service Skills and Knowledge Framework 2013

Berkeley’s Goldman School defines the field of public policy as follows:

“Public Policy Analysis and Management, to give the field its complete name, is a professional training of about 40 years’ standing in US – and, increasingly in overseas – universities originally directed at developing a professional cadre of policy analysts in government agencies and legislatures. More recently public policy education has broadened to train government executives and administrators, and high-level personnel in the non-profit organizations that perform social functions commonly undertaken by government outside the US. The core program in public policy is a two-year master’s degree offered by dozens of schools in the US and elsewhere alone and jointly with engineering, law, public health, and other graduate degrees.

“The underlying model of public policy professional education is integration of disciplinary insights from economics, political science, law, statistics, operations research, psychology, and more with an intellectual spirit best characterized as “compared to what?” … Policy analysis is directed to identifying the best thing governments can do about important problems and opportunities, including known options and newly invented initiatives, and is distinguished by its expectation that a good policy analysis will demonstrate critical thinking of more than one kind at once. In the early 1980’s the field experienced its most recent major adaptation, when it was recognized that to be effective, alumni needed not only to “win the argument on the merits” but also to practice executive and leadership skills in real organizations. This recognition led to the integration of public management in the core curriculum.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Policy Analysis and Process (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Mel Cappe (2016), What is Public Policy – Definitions, Process, Institutions, People, Governance and Federal/Provincial Relations, Presentation to SPPG Orientation, 7 September 2016, at, accessed 21 August 2016.

Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto.

Dean G. Kilpatrick, in Definitions of Public Policy and the Law, at, accessed 21 August 2016.

Policy Profession – Skills and Knowledge Framework, UK Civil Service Learning, accessed 28 August 2016, at, accessed 28 August 2016.

Goldman School of Public Policy (2016), Why Public Policy, at, accessed 5 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 18 March 2017.

Image: Mel Cappe (2016), What is Public Policy – Definitions, Process, Institutions, People, Governance and Federal/Provincial Relations, Presentation to SPPG Orientation, 7 September 2016, at, accessed 21 August 2016.