Public policy aberrations are more discerning these days. Some of these are evidence-based, but often these are unsubstantiated and ill-informed. The recent debate on agriculture policy that led to the repeal of farm laws, and data privacy protection due to interception of personal data through PEGASUS, etc., were observed across many countries. In Punjab, the State’s power policy has been on the political rollercoaster for a long time. There is a perception that the political executives, the civil servants, and the top leadership of private and public sectors, who are primarily responsible for policymaking, are unable to fully appreciate the essence and import of public policy. However, in the government, civil servants advise the political executives, who are empowered to make policies.
Kilpatrick defined public policy 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. Chandler and Plano, however, define public policy as the strategic use of resources to alleviate national problems or governmental concerns.
The public policy directs solutions to the problems such as education, agriculture, health, labor, etc., that the governments need to respond to. These domains of life appear individualistic but are largely collective, which renders policymaking arduous. Nonetheless, it is a dynamic process to meet the evolving challenges. It is guided in many ways via public forums and statutory and constitutional institutions such as commissions, committees, and legislative bodies with the participation of multiple stakeholders.
As per James E. Anderson, Public policy is a broad strategy the government uses to do its job, the relatively stable set of purposive governmental behaviors that address matters of concern to some part of society. It is thus a framework for the public good on a given subject that a government or an organization intends to pursue. It cannot go against common societal interests, though in a dictatorship or autocratic government, the whims and fancies of a person or a few persons may influence it.
The aim of a policy can be expressed just in a sentence or a phrase such as poverty alleviation or raising the income of farmers. But, such an intent expression will fructify when explained in a context fully reflecting upon its social, political, cultural, and economic ramifications. It should also cater to all demographic divisions -ethnic, caste, class, and gender. It will, of course, be affected by the character of a government- democratic or autocratic, and its bureaucracy- committed or impartial.
More than defining, the meaning of a public policy should be understood in its true spirit both by the political executives and the bureaucracy. Even the judicial interpretation, not fully reflecting upon the meaning and context of a policy may go wrong.
Sometimes casual and not causal, and out-of-context statements of political executives are construed as public policy. The civil servants are expected to amplify and work on them. Such remarks, if not substantiated by the data and evidence, the bureaucracy comes under attack for being a bottleneck. In competitive politics, efforts are made to justify the unjustifiable through some committed bureaucrats, maybe based on some allurements or otherwise. It is one of the causes of most, if not all policy debates in public space. Otherwise, dispersed governance, insufficient knowledge, and vagaries of politics are the most commonly observed causes of failing policies.
An effective policy will be evidence-based and transparent, clearly stating the reasons for those impacted. Transparency does not mean merely a public notification, but it means informing the reasons for a decision to the affected persons. It shall happen only when data and information inform the policy.
Apart from missing depth and clarity, there are many other reasons for the observed inadequacies in public policy. These are data illiteracy, ideological commitments of the political executive and even the bureaucracy, failing ethics and democratic values, and missing knowledge of policy implementation tools. The policy implementation tools are the laws, the rules, the regulations, the schemes, and the programs of the government. The regulatory authorities and commissions are also instruments of public policy.
The political executives and the bureaucracy can not go against the policy or work outside the framework of its tools. Those responsible for policy implementation can suggest and seek a change, and those tasked with the making can change the policy, but the violation is not an option. Public policy is an article of faith and trust that elected representatives and civil servants need to sustain without ideological distortions and unethical deviations.
People evaluate public policies based on their outcomes. These may have unintended consequences and be harmful if not based on evidence and a given context. The distortions in policies that prove against the public interest will be questioned in judicial scrutiny and may even cause socio-economic unrest. The judicial verdict or policy interpretation in such a situation becomes the law. However, policymaking is an executive function and shall remain so. The judicial authorities can, of course, lay down the guidelines. It happened in framing the rules under the Telegraph Act 1885. The rules were not framed till 2007, though the Supreme Court gave directions for it in 1996, emphasizing the need to lay down procedural safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals in interceptions of telephones. The policy on the privacy of individuals remained ambiguous and needed a correction. However, it was achieved in 2007 with the notification of the rules as per the guidelines of the Apex Court.
The rising trend of policies that are not evidence-based or driven by uncommon individualistic fancies thus needs to be contained by deepening the understanding of their true essence and meaning.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.