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NLU What is Public Policy

What Is Public Policy?

Public policy requires attention to detail in administering programs and documented goals of local, state and federal governments. The province of public policy can also extend to non-profit organizations and private sector businesses. Consider two definitions of policy from Merriam-Webster:1

2a: a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions
2b: a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body

Both definitions cover planning and courses of action that help shape decisions in service of certain goals. This captures the heart of the public policy worker, who reviews, analyzes, shapes and administers high-level plans “in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions.”

Public Policy & Political Science

Public policy is an integral function of governments (including health departments and school boards); political, accounting, labor, and public relations professionals may also issue, debate and revise public policy. It is often planned or evaluated by political scientists, who study “the origin, development, and operation of political systems.” They also research political ideas and analyze “governments, policies, political trends and related issues.”2

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the job description of political scientists is as follows:3

  • Research political subjects, such as the U.S. political system, relations between the United States and foreign countries, and political ideologies
  • Collect and analyze data from sources, such as public opinion surveys and election results
  • Develop theories, using qualitative sources, such as historical documents
  • Test theories, using quantitative methods, such as statistical analysis
  • Evaluate the effects of policies and laws on government, businesses, and people
  • Monitor current events, policy decisions, and other issues relevant to their work
  • Forecast political, economic, and social trends
  • Present research results by writing reports, giving presentations, and publishing articles

Public policy often requires its creators, practitioners or evaluators to use qualitative and quantitative research methods. They may look for data to study causal links between political systems and various outcomes. In this way, political scientists share some overlapping job functions with anthropologists, economists, market research analysts, postsecondary teachers, sociologists, survey researchers and urban planners.4 

Learn more about public policy and administration careers.

Public Policy Analysis

Much of public policy boils down to the analysis of whether a given program or set of guidelines is good or bad. For background on how this process works and the roles of those who conduct it, read Sadie Blanchard’s “Policy Analysts” (PDF) article in Occupational Outlook Quarterly, which describes how policy analysts influence government action by creating policy, evaluating policy and conducting research. It also examines their career trajectories and skill sets from an educational and experiential perspective, noting the importance of reading and digesting complex information, independent research, and effective communication and collaboration skills.5

Source References [+]

1. "Policy." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 10 June 2016.

2. “Political Scientists.” December 17, 2015.

3. “What Political Scientists Do.” December 17, 2015.

4. “What Political Scientists Do.” December 17, 2015.

5. “Policy analysts: Shaping society through research and problem-solving.” Sadie Blanchard. BLS, Occupational Outlook Quarterly, Spring 2007.


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