Public policy is a government plan of action to solve a common social problem. Social problems may affect many citizens and require government action because individuals, groups, businesses, or other private actors either cannot handle these problems or have no incentive to address them.
Public policy can be difficult to create for several reasons. There are often competing views about what constitutes a problem, most problems are complex and difficult to solve, and solutions can be costly and often create new problems.
Public policy is generally one of three types: redistributive, distributive, or regulatory. Redistributive policies attempt to shift wealth, income, and other resources from the haves to the have-nots. Distributive policies address particular needs of an identifiable group, and the costs are shared among all taxpayers. Regulatory policies limit the actions of a specific, targeted group.
Creating public policy involves many steps (agenda setting, formulation, adoption, implementation, and evaluation) and a multitude of groups (including Congress, the president, the courts, the bureaucracy, special interests, and the public).
Social policies include government programs that seek to provide economic security for people who cannot help themselves, as well as other government assistance that improves the quality of life for individuals. Social policies, including Social Security and welfare, may be redistributive or distributive, taking from the whole pool of resources to help particular groups of citizens. While social policies generally are thought of as programs that help the poor, they can help the wealthy and middle class as well, as education subsidies, corporate welfare, and Medicare illustrate.
Environmental policy is a regulatory policy that often leads to debates on balancing the protection of the environment with the protection of business. Although environmental policy is commonly discussed today, it did not become a major national issue until the 1970s. Today’s major environmental debates revolve around issues of shale-gas extraction, nuclear energy, and the Keystone XL pipeline.
Pluralism is the most prominent theory of democracy in social policy. Citizens’ interests are often represented when groups lobby elected officials. Participatory democracy also explains some aspects of the policymaking process, as citizens in their roles as voters and respondents to surveys can influence elected officials. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, public policy usually reflects public opinion, an indication that American democracy works quite well.