FROM : BSS/25/17



Introduction and Background.

Any government which is democratic in nature cannot afford to turn a blind eye on the plight of the citizens it represents (Dye 1998). Measures have to be taken to improve the livelihood of the citizens. This will only happen if the government has precise policies pertaining to each and every aspect of its intended actions (Hanekom et all 1996). The word ‘policy’ has no single phrase that best define what a it is, however, it is a broad concept that encompass multiple areas (Torjman 2005). According to Mackay & Shaxton (2005) defined policy as a “distinct path of action which is suitable for the pursuit of the desired goal within a particular context”. Althaus et all (2007) provides that “a policy is a deliberate plan of action that guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes”. From the above definitions, policy aims at achieving a desired goal that is considered to be in the best of all members of society. Since policy serves the public interest, then it is called public policy. Public policy therefore has to do with those spheres that are considered to be ‘public’ (Dye, 1998. The common thing about public policy is that, it is a political process facilitated by government targeting to solve public challenges. However, this essay is an attempt to define what a ‘public policy’ is.
The origin of public policy can be traced back during the period where the United States of America participated in World War I and II. The evolution of public policy is noticeable by the expansion of power of people and of government. There are a number of public policy documents that have helped the modern world on how policies are made. The most historic notable policy document is that of Magna Carter 1215 CE. It introduced the idea that there should be checks on government power. The idea was targeting the King of England by promoting that no one should be above the law and it was adopted (American University 2018).

Various definitions of public policy.

According to Mackay & Shaxton (2005), defined public policy as “a decision made by government to either act or not act in order to resolve problems”. Thomas Dye (1998) also defined public policy as “whatever government chooses to do or not to do”. Therefore, it is clear that public policies are governmental decisions which are the result of activities undertaken in aiming of achieving a specific goals and objectives. Again, government can decide to act on certain issues and remain silent on others, as long as it achieves its intended goal and it becomes a policy. For instance, earlier this year, 2018, the government of Malawi banned the exportation of maize as there was fear of experiencing hunger after the fall of armyworms which had negatively affected the many crops including maize (Chitsulo 2018). This government decision became a public policy since it aimed at achieving a specific goal which is serving the public from the risk of hunger. On the other hand, Dye articulated that public policy involves what government intends not to do. One has to put into consideration that doing nothing does not mean that there is absence of activity as such, but sometimes the best response is not to react on certain request. In some instances, government uses this strategy of doing nothing because by responding, could result in high risk for unwanted output (effect) or outcome (impact) (Howlett & Ramesh 2003).

Public policy has also been defined as “desired state-of-the-art in certain area or expressed desire of the government to follow certain way of development in specific area” (Hogwood & Gunn, 1984: 14-15). This definition can best be understood in the context of certain field of activities where measures are carried out to provide a solution in that particular field. In this case, the fields can include: economic, social, health care, foreign or military policy, where the government can decide to define and direct development of activities of individual field of interest (Hogwood & Gunn 1984). For example in the field of health care, the government of Malawi decided to construct a cancer center in Lilongwe. This development aims to address the challenges cancer patients were going through by seeking medical attention abroad.

In addition, a public policy is “a deliberate and (usually) careful decision that provides guidance for addressing selected public concerns” (Torjman 2005). This definition entails that any given policy represents the end result of a decision providing a solution to a specific public problem. Public policy decision making might be complex. This is because of a number of issues that might need to be addressed at the same time. For examples; issues to do with protection of environment, promoting economic competitiveness, enhancing child development or reducing poverty. However, government has to set out priorities and make a comprehensive decision to address the problem.

University of Pretoria, provides that public policy shall mean broad guidelines or statement of goals for a course of action that should be followed in an organization to address a particular problem or a set of problems in order to provide uniformity in decision making. These rules or prescriptions should be translated into actions that will solve the needs of the beneficiaries. Normally, the policy must be agreed by a group of people, mostly elected officials who would make sound judgment on what would be best for the citizen (Hogwood & Gunn 1984). For instance, the Migration and citizenship policy in Malawi serves as guidelines in handling migration dynamics. Since they are guidelines, the institution is mandated to follow them in order to achieve the intended goal, controlling the flow of people.

Lastly, according to Considine (1994) defined public policy as “an action which employs governmental authority to commit resources in support of a chosen problem”. Lasswell (1936) in his work, Politics: ‘who gets what, when and how?’ pointed out that politics involves the authority of elites of the government in allocation of resources. Lasswell further said that, public policy has a distributive or allocative effect where by government has the authority to allocate the scarce resources to the society. From the above expressions, one can clearly conclude that public policy depends on the authority of the government as far as the allocation of scarce resources is concerned. For example; the malata and cement subsidy is a public policy advanced by the DPP government to support the needy society.


Many scholars have defined public policy differently. Other scholars have argued that public policy involves government decision to solve a particular problem. On the other hand, other scholars have suggested that public policy is about government authority in allocation of scarce resource. However, out of all the definitions, public policy has something in common, it is a political process which is facilitated by the government with the aim of achieving the intended goal. And finally, public policy targets to solve the problems of the population not the individual.

Althaus, C., Bridgman, P., & Davis, G., 2007, “The Australian Policy Handbook”, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, p. 27.

American University, 2018, The Evolution of Public Policy, Accessed from: Accessed on 12/11/18.

Chitsulo, M., 2018, Government bans maize export, Accessed from: Accessed on 12/11/18.

Considine, M., 1994, Public Policy: A Critical Approach, Melbourne, Macmillan.

Dye, T., 1998, “Understanding Public Policy”, (9th ed), Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Hogwood, W., Gunn, A,. 1984, Policy Analysis for the Real World, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Howlett, M., Ramesh, M., 2003, Studying Public Policy: Policy Cycles and Public Subsystems. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lasswell, H., 1936, Politics: Who Gets What, When and How? Mcgraw-Hill.

Mackay, M., & Shaxton, L., 2005, Understanding and Applying Basic Public Policy Concepts, Accessed from: Accessed on 09/11/18.

Michael, H., & Ramesh, M., 1995, Studying Public Policy: Policy Cycles and Policy Decisions, Oxford University Press
Ministry of Health, 2011, Malawi Health Sector Strategic Plan 2011-2016, Lilongwe, Malawi.

Torjman, S., 2005, What is Policy?, The Caledon Institute of Social Policy, Scott Street.

University of Pretoria, Public Policy Analysis, Accessed from:, Accessed on 13/11/18.