Crafting Public Policy is Very Hard. So Why is it Sometimes Made Out to be Far Easier Than it is?

Paul Rader
6 min readDec 13, 2019

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Source: Architect of the Capitol. “House Chamber.”

Oftentimes, when there is some sort of policy issue being discussed in the news, it is talked about in black-and-white, straightforward terms. This is particularly the case with strongly partisan or ideological politicians and interest groups who see little to no grey on issues. Even when there is a more nuanced debate, those who have a highly vested interest in an issue may boil down the issue to general values that ostensibly seem clear-cut, such as “limited government,” “public safety,” “equality/equity,” or “efficiency.”

The crafting of public policy, however, is a complicated and intensive process. Politicians and interest groups often have a vested interest in depicting a debate as straightforward so that they can easily bring public opinion on their side or to pressure certain officeholders. Regular citizens don’t have the interest, time, and/or expertise to mull over the details of policy, which is why they will often rely on other sources to tell them about it.

But it isn’t always about ulterior motives of political players. Many of them also don’t understand — or think about — the process of creating and implementing public policy. It isn’t just writing some block(s) of text or a finely-crafted speech and then trying to enforce compliance in some way. It needs to be studied. It needs to be evaluated through qualitative and quantitative methods. It needs strategy and some measure of foresight. It needs clear definitions of what it is trying to accomplish.

It’s obviously not possible to flesh out effectively in a single article — there are whole college courses devoted to the study of public policy. Yet we can talk about some of the basics so that there is more awareness of the intricacies of formulating, building, and enacting policy.

Definitions Matter

Words can and do mean different things to different people. One of the most common values to be highlighted in policy discussion is equality. It may seem like a straightforward concept, and sometimes it is. Yet in the realm of policy creation, that isn’t the case.

Furthermore, it’s often confused with the term “equity,” which is oftentimes what is actually meant when people talk about equality. Equality is the equal division of some right, resource, etc. amongst everyone involved in some policy. Equity, however, is a division of resources based on a metric of some sort to level the playing field. For example, the same amount of education funding per pupil in school would be equality, but it isn’t necessarily equitable. If it was changed so that students from lower-income neighborhoods and struggling schools had more funding spent on them per capita than students from higher socioeconomic status, that would be considered equity.

Even then, however, equity does not have an obvious definition, and what one person sees as equitable another person may see as antithetical to equity. Let’s go back to the previous example of higher funding for students from areas of lower socioeconomic status. What about students from struggling families that just happen to live in higher-income areas? What about students with mental or physical handicaps? Those students aren’t necessarily being considered by such a policy.

What about “merit” where students who work harder have more spent on them per capita? If so, then how do we quantify “hard work”? Is that even a metric that can be defined, or is that even based on merit? Is it really that equitable to do it this way?

So many questions to ask and find hard answers to, not to mention that equity is far from the only term that is hard to define. Other policies might look for “efficiency,” but what does that mean? A nebulous definition could be “getting the most out of something with putting as little into it as possible,” but that doesn’t really help. Economically speaking, it is the allocation of some resource spread out amongst people with as little waste as possible. But that brings us back to our issues with equity. What one person sees as efficient another person will see as inefficient or wasteful. Also, how do we quantify waste?

We could go on and on about examples of words that have to be clearly defined and that can mean different things to different people (e.g. public safety). Hopefully, however, this point has been made clear.

Public Policy Goals: What is the Policy Trying to Accomplish?

Policy, of course, has specific ends that it is meant to achieve, both general and specific. What these ends are will differ from policy to policy. The aforementioned equity and efficiency are two potential goals meant to be achieved, but they won’t necessarily even be related to the policy at hand. Other goals might include public safety, public health, fiscal impact (i.e., how much money is the policy projected to cost), or longevity of the policy. Once it is determined which goals are important, then they need to be defined.

Virtually every policy, however, is going to need to consider its own political feasibility, which is mostly straightforward. If its something that needs lawmaker approval (local government, state legislature, or Congress), partisan and ideological calculations need to be made. Would conservatives or liberals, or Republicans or Democrats, likely be predisposed toward or against it? The partisan and/or ideological makeup of a legislative body is going to be one of the most important considerations for a policy so that is has a chance of becoming reality.

Evaluating Policy — Before and After

Every policy is going to have pros and cons and there is no way around that. A genuine analysis of potential policy is going to dig deep for any hiccups that may arise from implementation or to see what alternative policies do better or worse. If a potential policy is evaluated to be clearly best in every conceivable way compared to alternatives, then a serious analysis has not been done and bias is clouding judgment. (There might, however, be a policy alternative that is clearly the most inferior out of a group of them).

Even so, our limited purview as humans means that we cannot see every effect that will occur from the policy. Virtually every policy has unintended consequences. Crafting policy, a policy’s intentions, and its actual enactment can all be very different things, meaning that evaluation is a process for both before and after the policy is in effect.

Application to Policy Debates Today

There are plenty of hot policy topics today, just like there always is. Let’s take gun laws, for example. Public safety is guaranteed to be in the discussion, so how do we define it? Gun control advocates might argue that policies such as banning assault rifles, outlawing bump stocks, or adding/strengthening background checks keep the weapons out of criminals’ hands, while opponents of gun control might argue these or other policies are placing a burden on law-abiding citizens by making it harder for them to get a gun to protect themselves. Two sides, two arguments, two different definitions and visions for how to achieve public safety.

Then there is the fact that gun policy is a particularly varied conversation, an overarching debate that encompasses a long list of smaller debates. Gun control advocates are not going to all agree on which policies are necessary; opponents of gun control are not going to all agree on which restrictions are going too far. To name just some more examples, other policy debates include taxing bullets, increasing the minimum age to buy a weapon, mental health screenings, and whether non-citizens should be allowed to own a firearm.

For all the reasons in this article and many more, we should be wary of public policy debates being painted as simple choices or “common sense.” It’s rare, if ever, that policies are straightforward in what they do or what effects they will have. Critical thinking, evaluation, and some foresight is a must to implement good policy — or to even have a chance at implementing it.



Paul Rader

Nonpartisan political analyst, researcher, and speaker; self-published author; bridging political divisions and closing gaps in civic knowledge