There are four typical and main steps in the public policy process:
- identifying a problem,
- formulating a policy,
- implementing the policy change, and
- evaluating the result.
Each step is usually followed in the order listed to make sure that the process is done correctly. In many cases, these "steps" are turned into a cycle, with each step being repeated as changes occur; when a policy is evaluated, for example, it may reveal new problems that need to be addressed. In general, the public policy process can be seen as the steps a government takes to act on behalf of the public.
Though the terminology used to explain the policy process may differ, each step in the process is focused on the same general purpose. The actual process itself may also vary occasionally, depending on the policy in question. Despite these differences, a look at the general steps most governments, or governmental bodies, follow in most situations can provide insight into how the process generally works.
Identifying the Problem
The first step in the public policy process is to outline the problem. This involves not only recognizing that an issue exists, but also studying the problem and its causes in detail. This stage involves determining how aware the public is of the issue, deciding who will participate in fixing it, and considering what means are available to accomplish a solution. Answers to such questions often help policy makers gauge which policy changes, if any, are needed to address the identified problem. The agenda — which problems are addressed — can be set by the public, special interest groups, or government officials, among others.
Formulating a Policy to Resolve the Problem
After identifying and studying the problem, a new public policy may be formulated or developed. This step is typically marked by discussion and debate between government officials, interest groups, and individual citizens to identify potential obstacles, to suggest alternative solutions, and to set clear goals and list the steps that need to be taken to achieve them. This part of the process can be difficult, and often compromises will be required before the policy can be written. Once the policy is developed, the proper authorities must agreed to it; a weaker policy may be more likely to pass, where a stronger one that deals with the problem more directly might not have enough support to gain approval.
Implementing the Policy Change
A new policy must be put into effect, which typically requires determining which organizations or agencies will be responsible for carrying it out. This is the third step of the public policy process, and one that can be difficult if the people who are tasked with carrying out the policy are not committed to complying with it. During the policy development step, compromises may have been made to get the policy passed that those who are ultimately required to help carry it out do not agree with; as such, they are unlikely to enforce it effectively. Clear communication and coordination, as well as sufficient funding, are also needed to make this step a success.
Evaluating the Effect of the Policy Change
The final stage in the public policy process, known as evaluation, is typically ongoing. This step usually involves a study of how effective the new policy has been in addressing the original problem, which often leads to additional public policy changes. It also includes reviewing funds and resources available to ensure that the policy can be maintained. Historically, this step has not always been treated as very important, but policy makers are increasingly finding ways to make sure that the tools needed for evaluation are included in each step of the public policy process.