Chapter Summary

The issue of voter identification illustrates the complexity of policy making and the following themes: the critical and difficult nature of policy design, the importance of policy analysis, and the need for changes to policy over time. Policy making never really ends; it is an ongoing process of defining problems, developing solutions to them, selecting policy alternatives, implementing them, and then examining how well they are working and whether changes are needed.

Public policy making matters a great deal to us, as it impacts many facets of our everyday lives. Policy capacity refers to the ability of government to identify and act on public problems within a reasonable period of time. Policy design can make a big difference in how much policies cost and how well they work to meet people’s needs. Conflict is a core characteristic of U.S. policy making because various actors have differing views about the viability of policy proposals, the role of government, and social values. The nation alternates between periods when policy makers are active in developing strong new policies and periods of inactivity. These characteristics of U.S. politics mean that most of the time, public policy change occurs in small steps with only modest alterations made to existing policy. Incremental policy making can create political stability, confidence in the process, and compromise based on careful evaluation of options. On the other hand, it tends to focus on policy making based on events or developments that are closest to people in time and space, creating an emphasis on the short-term time horizon. Certain public problems, such as climate change or entitlement reform, require innovative departure from the status quo and a longer-term focus. Because the targets of public policy are always shifting, analysts, policy makers, and citizens need to be alert to changing situations and consider new policy ideas.

Policy analysis can help make public policies more effective, efficient, and equitable. Effectiveness focuses on whether policy outcomes were achieved. Efficiency, which considers the expense of the policy, is probably the criterion most likely to receive attention in contemporary policy making. Equity is less often emphasized, but it includes concerns that range from protecting individual freedom to regulating how policy costs and benefits are distributed among groups in a population.

What is our government’s capacity to act on contemporary public problems, and what might be done to improve that capacity and to strengthen democratic processes in the United States? Policy capacity can be improved by evaluating and improving institutional processes such as election law, campaign finance, and governmental programs. In addition, the public plays an essential role to hold our government accountable by staying engaged and working toward solutions. A completely disengaged public will yield policy making to special interests that do invest time and attention.

Public trust and confidence in government are elements of this capacity. The authors argue that individual citizen capacity to participate in policy making should be strengthened. Most citizens either do not see how government affects their lives or do not believe they can do much to change public policies. The Internet has created many opportunities for public participation by enabling individuals to become informed and involved. Citizens as well as analysts can evaluate policy proposals for their effectiveness, efficiency, and equity, among other concerns.