According to Sapru (2004), ‘Public Policy’ as an academic pursuit emerged in the beginning of 1950s and since then it has been acquiring new dimensions, and is struggling hard to acknowledge the status of a discipline in the comity of social sciences. As a study of products of government, policy forms a significant component in many a course and programme in numerous disciplines—political science, public administration, economics, management. So rapid is the growth that many researchers, teachers, public administrators now feel that it is becoming more and more unmanageable.
The disciplines need to comprehend public policy cut right across the old academic lines of demarcation. Indeed it is this interdisciplinary quality which makes the field of public policy interesting and thought provoking. ‘Public policy’ is a concept now much in vogue. It is frequently used term in our daily life and in our academic literature, where we often make references to the national health policy, the new education policy, wage policy, agricultural policy, American or French foreign policy and so on. It is an area which had to do with those spheres which are so labelled as public.
The concept of public policy presupposes that there is a domain of life which is not private or purely individual, but held in common. Thomas Dye, a leading scholar of policy analysis, says: “Traditional (political science) studies described the institutions in which public policy was formulated. BUT unfortunately the linkages between important institutional arrangements and the content of public policy were largely unexplored. ” He further believes that today the focus of political science is shifting to public policy—“to the description and explanation of the causes and consequences of government activity” (Sapru, 2004).
Legislative and Public policy The distinction between legislation and public policy is important to bear in mind. The mare passage of legislation does not always produce public policy. In areas of intense group conflict congress frequently resorts to the passage of “skeleton” legislation in order to avoid directly confronting difficult political questions. That is, it purposely passes vague legislation, with statutory language couched in very general terms, requiring interpretation by the president or the administrative agency to which the legislature delegates authority to carry out its intent.
Ambiguous statutory provisions are not only the result of congressmen attempting to avoid taking political stands, but also of the complexity of the problems before the legislature. It is difficult for Congress to write comprehensive laws. Legislative reliance upon the technical expertise of the bureaucracy is common. The technological problems that must be taken into account in most areas of public policy also change rapidly from year to year. Even if a legislative committee has the expertise to deal with such matters, it is cumbersome to pass new legislation as frequently as conditions change.
Legislation must be kept flexible, delegating a large amount of discretionary authority to the administrative authority to the administrative agencies charged with implementation. Legislative committees may oversee agencies on a fairly continuous basis (although these are rare) and in this way affect the nature of the policy that is being formulated and carried out by the administrative branch. However, this is not the same thing as legislating.
The policy outputs of government, then, are often not to be found in the language of statutes, but in interpretations made by legislative committees, administrative agencies, and sometimes the presidency and the courts, after legislation has been passed. Except where the president and the Supreme Court are exercising independent constitutional prerogatives, all public policy decisions have a statutory basis, however vague. Through legislation, Congress determines the general areas in which government agencies will have policy-making authority, the boundaries of their authority, and the amount of money needed for particular programmes.
Complementing statutory law is administrative law, that is, the rules and regulations formulated by administrative agencies. These fill in the details of congressional legislation, and are supposed to follow the intent of congress. Ambiguity of congressional intent often leads to challenges of administrative actions in courts, which may overrule agencies if they find that they are acting beyond the authority (ultra vires) granted to them by congress, as interpreted by judges.