This chapter discusses five competing theories that attempt to explain why policy makers develop policy, and concludes with a focus on the policy process model, which is widely used in the study of public policy. Elite theory explains how governing elites, or a small group of leaders (elected, business, professional, celebrity, or other prominent individual), can dominate in shaping policy. Group theory views policy making as a continual struggle for balance among the competing interests of various interest groups. The advocacy coalition framework suggests that policy actors from different public and private organizations and levels of government share a similar perspective and tries to influence policy over time. Institutional theory emphasizes the role of government—how government is structured, its legal powers, and rules for policy making. Many kinds of institutions can influence public policy: markets; individual firms or corporations; national, state, and local governments; and voluntary associations such as political parties and interest groups. Rational choice theory focuses on individual decision making and suggests that people (from voters to elected officials) are rational actors who attempt to further their own self-interest. Political systems theory is a comprehensive theory that emphasizes larger social, economic, and cultural contexts that put pressure on policy makers to act and lead to policy outputs and outcomes.
The policy process model or policy cycle presents a logical sequence of six stages in policy making. The first stage, problem definition and agenda setting, refers to the way that problems are chosen for policy making. Problem definition is an important step involving analysis of the causes of public problems; a person’s perspective and background determine how he or she defines a problem and relates to it. Agenda setting occurs when legislators begin active discussions about a problem and potential solutions, and the issue is “on the agenda.” A systemic agenda is one being debated by the public, while an institutional agenda, or government agenda, is out of the public eye. The second stage, policy formulation, occurs when courses of public action are proposed in government. Third, policy legitimation, is defined as a political exercise of giving legal force to decisions through a legislative vote or use of government authority. Policy implementation is the fourth stage, in which activities such as organizing, interpreting, and applying, are directed toward putting a policy into effect. The last two stages are called policy evaluation and policy change. Policies are assessed to determine their efficacy in achieving stated goals and objectives and then adapted or revised to achieve greater outcomes and address the problem fully.
Numerous actions can be taken by government to enact policies; these are called policy instruments and include regulation, government management, taxing and spending, market mechanisms, and information, education, and persuasion. Lowi’s well-known policy typology identifies distributive, redistributive, and regulatory policies (which include regulation of business—competitive regulation—and regulation that protects the general public—protective or social regulation).