Public policies are developed by officials within institutions of government to address public issues through the political process. When it comes to creating public policy, policymakers are faced with two distinct situations. The first situation, and the ideal one, is for policymakers to jointly identify a desirable future condition, and then create policies and take actions to move toward that desired future state, monitoring progress to allow for necessary adjustments. The alternative, and less desirable, situation occurs when policymakers are unable to reach a consensus regarding a desirable future condition. In this later instance, policymakers try instead to move away from present situations judged as undesirable, even though no consensus exists about the preferred alternative.
The context for the public policy-making process in the United States reflects several important aspects, which are highlighted in the following paragraphs.
Ideally, policymakers are guided by core principles. Four examples follow.
In addition to the guidance and associated constraints placed on policymakers, demands from the general public, or "bottom up" initiatives, can be as influential as "top down" directives. The general public is reasonably educated and informed, and can mobilize to demand and support desired initiatives.
Powerful special interest groups can and do apply significant pressure on elected officials and public servants in order to achieve their ends, regardless of the public welfare. A special interest group is an organized group that exists primarily to advance its own specific interests. For example, a Chamber of Commerce usually advocates for interests of business, whereas the Sierra Club normally represents the views of people interested in the environment. Elites sometimes use questionable means in order to achieve their ends, and such influence is often exerted "behind closed doors."
Public policy issues normally are complex, occur in rapidly changing and turbulent environments characterized by uncertainty, and involve conflicts among different interests. Thus, those responsible for creating, implementing, and enforcing policies must be able to reach decisions about ill-defined problem situations that usually are not well understood, have no one correct answer, and involve many competing interests.
Given the above characteristics of the policy-making process, the needs of policymakers and scientists often are different. Policymakers usually focus on the short-term (commonly, the time until the next election), and on actions that will have tangible results and outcomes while minimizing risk. In contrast, scientists are interested in the long-term, in deferring action until understanding has been gained, and in recognizing the nature, extent, and magnitude of uncertainty. Thus, the policymaker normally is interested in the simple rather than the complex, the concrete rather than the abstract, and the immediate rather than a distant result. Policymakers also understand that sometimes conditions will be favorable for a decision or action, even if a technical understanding of the issue is incomplete. Waiting for more data, analysis, and interpretation may result in policymakers losing an opportune moment.
The personal characteristics of policymakers and scientists also are often different. The best policymakers are prepared and able to synthesize diverse information, move forward through acts of faith, make major leaps forward into the unknown, and effectively make prodigious bets.
In contrast, scientists are taught to be conservative and cautious, and to doubt results and conclusions until evidence and analysis support them. Scientists present their findings, conclusions, and recommendations qualified with many "if's" and "maybe's," because they recognize and appreciate the complexities and uncertainties associated with their knowledge. However, policymakers usually do not want qualified statements from scientific advisors. Instead, they want simple and clear answers.
Because various scientists may use different models and assumptions to guide their research, it is not unusual for different scientists to reach contradictory conclusions. For example, one scientist may determine that groundwater in an aquifer is being polluted; whereas another scientist may say it is not. If the aquifer is polluted, one scientist may conclude that the type and amount of contaminants in the aquifer is a threat to human health, but another scientist would disagree. One camp of scientists may say that climate warming is occurring, but others may say it is not.
As a result of these disagreements among experts, policymakers who do not like specific advice from a scientist usually can find another scientist who will provide a perspective that supports their preferred policy. The fact that scientists can disagree often confuses the public, who may be puzzled as to why scientists are not in agreement about a policy issue.
Despite the scientific uncertainty that may exist, policymakers are challenged to find optimal solutions that ideally have been identified through participatory processes that reflect the scientific consensus, and that balance the interests of various groups.
Cortner, Hanna J., and Margaret A. Moote. The Politics of Ecosystem Management. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999.
Lasswell, Harold D. The Decision Process: Seven Categories of Functional Analysis. College Park, MD: University of Maryland, 1956.
Lindblom, Charles. The Policy Making Process. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.
MacKenzie, Susan Hill. Integrated Resource Planning and Management: The Ecosystem Approach in the Great Lakes Basin. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996.
Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision Processes in Administrative Organization, 2nd ed. New York: Free Press, 1965.