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The Public Policy Process

Key Concepts

  • Problem solving process
  • Governmental framework
  • Plural politics

This course is informed by the idea of public policy making as a democratic process of solving problems. This reading views that process from the perspective of communication and offers two illustrative cases. Other ways to view public policy making are found in sources listed at the end of this reading.

Public policy exists to solve problems affecting people in society (1). Making public policy means deciding what is and is not a problem, choosing which problems to solve, and deciding on solutions. In the process, problems are conceived and defined differently by variously interested actors and groups. Solutions are achieved through mutual adjustment and adaptation of interests. Decision often demands compromise and reflects institutional constraints. The framework for decision is governmental.

Case 1

On October 24, 2007 Pennsylvania announced a new standard of food safety aimed to prevent “mislabeling” of food products, especially “misleading” labels. That’s public policy, a standing decision by government. An administrative agency, the state’s department of agriculture, targeted dairy food as the problem. Specifically, milk produced or sold in Pennsylvania could not be labeled as “hormone-free.” Labels could not say that milk came from cows not treated with “artificial growth hormone” or with “rBGH” or “rBST,” common acronyms for recombinant bovine somatotropine growth hormone.

Politics influenced the decision. Arguably, the agency’s decision to target milk labeling favored one set of stakeholders, the maker of rBST and dairy farmers who use it. That coalition had long argued that milk labels saying “no artificial growth hormone” or similar language harmed sales of their products by implying that milk from cows treated with rBST is unsafe. They cited Federal Drug Administration approval for rBST use and scientific evidence of its safety. The state agriculture secretary agreed.

The agency’s decision was immediately controversial in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. News and reaction spread through newspaper, telephone, email, blogs, chat. Dairy farmers who do not use rBST and who want to say so on milk labels organized rapidly to oppose the ban. They counter-argued that the science on rBST’s safety is inconclusive, that they have a right to inform consumers about their product, and that consumers have the right to make informed choices. Plans for litigation against the state were announced. Farming organizations and farmers who do use rBST and who supported the “no rBST” labeling ban also organized to react.

In mid-November, Pennsylvania’s governor postponed the ban, then cancelled it. On January 17, 2008 the governor along with the secretary of agriculture announced two policy changes, a revised standard for dairy product labeling and new procedures for oversight of labeling claims. Under rule revisions, labels are permitted to claim that milk came from cows not treated with rBST along with a disclaimer as to its potential for health risk. Dairy food processors are required to verify label claims by having dairy farmers sign affidavits regarding production methods. That’s policy making in institutional democracy.

This snapshot captures the basics. For a better view of this case, read participants’ communications. They reveal dimensions of debate, and they suggest a typical mix of policy writing styles. Selected extracts by key participants are presented in Case 1 Examples.

What This Case Shows

Common features of policy making are illustrated here. For example, this case shows typical complexity in defining the problem. At least five policy problems with associated issues are conceivable in this case: 1) agricultural biotechnology with issues of impacts on people, animals, and ecosystems; 2) food safety with issues of consumer protection; 3) labeling with issues of free speech; 4) trade with issues of marketing and advertising; 5) ethics with issues of conflicting values. These conceptions of the problem are not mutually exclusive. That’s typical, too. Problems usually are blends.

Solutions are selective. Policy analysis considers the options. In this case, basic options were considered. The state could accept the status quo without further action, or it could intervene, perhaps with limitations. To accept the status quo, Pennsylvania could follow federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines that allow rBST use in milk production and do not call for labeling. Instead, the state chose to regulate labeling, first to ban a specific practice, then later to allow it with limitations.

In the governmental framework, public policy is made by all three branches, the legislature, executive and administration, and judiciary. This case illustrates administrative policy making that involves federal and state government. The federal agency acted to the limit of its authority to monitor food safety, where the state agency went on to act within its authority to monitor product labeling.

Debate about the use of scientific evidence in policy making emerged in this case. On the subject of rBST use, United States, Canadian, and European Union policies differ, with the United States permitting the use and the other governments not permitting it. The variation is partly attributable to different interpretations of evidence, and partly to international differences in regulatory agencies’ power.

Communication technology’s impact on public process is evident in this case. The Internet’s capacity to rapidly distribute information by e-mail, online news, blogs, chat, and other media probably accelerated Pennsylvania’s process. The network organized interest groups across boundaries as more state governments acted. Continuing access to online archives kept the unofficial public record open and the issues alive.

Policy making is not always as topical or visible as it was in this case. Important, less visible policy work that sustains the process goes on every day. Budgeting is a good case illustration. An actual state budget development is described next, shown from the viewpoint of the communications director for the state senate’s budget committee chairman.

Case 2

Case 2 deals with a state's budgeting process.

Summary and Looking Forward

Public policy making has three basic components: the problem, the policy, and the process. The problem is something perceived to be wrong in society or its environment. The policy is a standing decision by government. The process is problem solving by multiple participants functioning in a governmental framework and plural politics.

Next, week 2 explains how communication functions in the process and offers a disciplined approach to policy writing and speaking.

Works Cited

(1) Coplin, William D. and Michael K. O’Leary, 1998. Public Policy Skills, 3d ed. Washington DC: Policy Studies Associates, 3

Further Reading

Baumgartner, Frank R. and Bryan D. Jones, Policy Dynamics (The University of Chicago Press, 2002)

___________, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, (University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Kingdon, John W. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2n edition (Longman, 2003)

Sabatier, Paul (ed.), Theories of the Policy Process (Westview Press, 1999)
Stone, Deborah. Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Rev. ed. (WW Norton, 2002.)

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Case 2

The development of a state budget is an important public policy process. As you read through the scenario, consider how many different groups and types of communication are involved in the process.