Politics and Public Policy

  • Craig MathesonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1407-1


Public Policy Civil Society Policy Actor Liberal Democracy Collective Decision 
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Politics is the means by which a community makes collective decisions about public issues.


This article provides an overview of the relationship between politics and public policy. It will examine what politics is, why it exists, the venues in which it occurs, and the ways in which it can shape public policy. Politics is only one way of determining public policy decisions. Politics will be contrasted with the other ways of making public policy, namely, ideology, expertise, and authority. This article will also examine the sources of politics, the contrast between politics and rationality as sources of policy, and the question of how power is distributed in modern democracies.

Main Text

Public policy refers to the decisions and actions that are taken by the government when it addresses public issues or those that concern the entire community. Politics refers to the way in which a group seeks to arrive at collective decisions. Politics can occur at different levels, in families, organizations, and communities. Politics within communities involves seeking to influence the decisions and actions that are taken by government in relation to public issues, in other words public policy. Politics refers to a particular way of arriving at collective decisions, namely, one in which people seek to negotiate, persuade, and compromise with others rather than to command or coerce them. Such a view of politics was advanced by the British political scientist Bernard Crick in his celebrated book In Defence of Politics, first published in 1962. The reason that politics exists is because people disagree about what the best collective decision would be. Politics is a way in which such disagreements can be resolved peacefully and without the use of authority, coercion, or violence.

Politics is not the only basis upon which public policy decisions can be made. Broadly speaking, we may, following Henry Mintzberg’s analysis of organizational decision making, identify four broad sources of public policy. These are politics, ideology, expertise, and authority. Mintzberg sees these four factors as being the main influences on decision making in organizations. We may likewise view them as being the main proximate sources or bases of public policy, since governments are also organizations. Politics and the other three sources of public policy are not entirely separable since people can pursue ideologies when engaging in politics. People can also draw on expertise when engaging in politics and seek to influence or control authority by means of politics. Ideology and expertise become alternatives to politics when power holders in government seek to base their policy decision upon ideology or expertise rather than upon a process of persuasion or negotiation. Expertise shapes public policy when decisions are based on a process of rational analysis and expert knowledge rather than upon a process of “mutual adjustment” between different policy actors such as negotiation and bargaining. Authority shapes public policy when governments make decisions on their own without consulting with nongovernment actors and then impose these decisions upon them through the use of their authority. Politics shapes public policy when decisions are arrived at as a result of a process of negotiation, persuasion, and compromise. A typical example is voting undertaken by a deliberative assembly or negotiation between government and interest groups.

Politics occurs when there is a division of opinion within a group about what course of action to undertake. Such a division of opinion may arise because people’s interests are differently affected by the decision. Some people may be adversely affected, whereas other may benefit. The fact that there are winners and losers from public policy decisions means that people’s interests differ. People will seek to protect their interests if they are going to be harmed by a decision. Prominent examples of policy fields where such material interests are at stake include tax policy, social welfare policy, and trade policy. Another reason why people hold different opinions about a policy issue is because they have different values and therefore take a different view about the desirability of various courses of action. While politics is often thought as being about the pursuit of material interests (as in Harold Lasswell’s celebrated definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how”), politics is as much about the pursuit of “ideal interests” as it is about the pursuit of material interests. Studies of voting in many nations over recent decades show that the link between social class and voting preferences has weakened and that many political disputes are about moral and social issues rather than economic issues. Contemporary examples include “quality of life” issues such as the environment and moral issues such as abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and “victimless crimes” such as drug taking, prostitution and gay marriage. Many have noted that there is frequently a division of opinion about such issues between “progressives” and “conservatives.” Much of contemporary politics is about such moral issues rather than about material interests.

A division of opinion then is a necessary condition of politics as without such differences of opinion there would be consensus and hence no need for politics as a process of reconciling competing interests and viewpoints. In addition to a division of opinion, there also needs to be a decentralization of power within the society for politics to exist. Throughout most of history, power within communities has been centralized and collective decisions have been taken by a minority of people. The terms used to refer to such a form of government vary and include oligarchy, despotism, autocracy, aristocracy, and meritocracy. The world “polyarchy” was coined by the American political scientist Robert Dahl to describe the type of political system in which power is not centralized but decentralized and shared among multiple power holders. Another word for such a system is “pluralism.” Within a polyarchy, we find that power is shared by a number of different social actors rather than monopolized by a single actor. Where power is shared, policy decisions are the outcome not of the exercise of authority in which government seeks to impose its preferences on other policy actors but of negotiation, debate, and compromise. This is the case within liberal democracies where governments share power with interest and advocacy groups and with civil society broadly. Within authoritarian political systems by contrast, power is monopolized by government rather than shared with others, and decisions are the outcome of authority or power rather than of politics.

The exercise of power per se then is not politics. Politics as an activity consists of debate, discussion, negotiation, voting, compromise, and bargaining rather than of the issuing of commands and obedience to such commands. The idea of politics then is closely associated with ideas such as those of civil society, the public sphere, and democracy. Civil society refers to the sphere of social life that lies outside the domain of the market, government, and the family. It comprises associations, clubs, advocacy groups, trade unions, political parties, and nongovernment organizations. The presence of civil society can be seen as a precondition of politics. For example, Aristotle saw politics as arising from the existence of different groups, different interests, and different traditions, in other words, an aggregate of many members rather than a single group. The notion of a public sphere identified by the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas also has similarities to the idea of politics as it involves the notion of a social domain in which different groups and individuals can discuss matters of public interest and thereby influence government.

Politics then arises within diverse societies that contain different interests and viewpoints and in which disputes between such interests are resolved by means of negotiation, discussion, voting, and compromise rather than by means of the exercise of power or force. Violence then is an alternative to politics, since people can resolve a conflict by seeking to force their antagonists to submit to their will. Such violence can be exercised by the state as in the case of tyrannical forms of government which suppress dissent and seek to prevent the emergence of any opposition to themselves. It can also be exercised by non-state actors such as private militia and private armies, subunits of a state that secede from a state, and by popular movements. Civil war and revolution as well as tyranny are therefore alternatives to politics. To engage in politics is therefore to abjure violence as a means of resolving disputes.

Coercion, authority, and violence are alternatives to politics in the sense that they are ways of resolving disputes that do not involve persuasion, debate, negotiation, and compromise. Another alternative to politics is ideology. Ideology can be defined as a set of beliefs about the political, economic, and social order and set of preferences about how such orders should be constituted. Examples of ideologies include liberalism, socialism, conservatism, Marxism, and fascism. As we noted earlier, one of the sources of politics lies in the fact that people often hold different values. Ideologies express such values and provide a rationale for them. Politics can be a means by which people pursue such ideologies. Ideology replaces politics when public policy is shaped by a set of beliefs and associated values about how society should be ordered rather than by discussion and debate. Examples of types of government in which this occurs include totalitarian states and theocracies. In each case, the government seeks to structure society in accordance with an ideology or religious doctrine by using coercion, authority, and indoctrination. Totalitarianism was best exemplified by the Nazi and communist dictatorships of the twentieth century. Within Western Christendom, a separation between the church and state existed, but in Orthodox Christianity, the church and state were one. Within Islam likewise there is no separation of mosque and state. In totalitarian states and theocracies, public policy is shaped by ideology and religious doctrine rather than by politics.

For example, the Soviet Union sought to create a socialist society by abolishing private property in the means of production and establishing a command economy. Maoist China did likewise. Nazi Germany sought to expand its territory by launching a war against the Soviet Union in 1941 and to create a racially pure society by conducting a genocide of the Jewish people in Europe and of other unwanted minority groups. In such cases public policy is shaped by a combination of coercion and ideology rather than by politics. In totalitarian societies, the state seeks to eliminate the pluralism that underlies politics by seeking to indoctrinate all members of society into the ideology. People in such instances will share the same worldview and values, and the disagreement over values that underlies politics is thereby eliminated. In such cases, there is no longer a “need” for politics, since everyone agrees on what to do. Karl Popper saw in the Nazi and communist dictatorships an attempt to recreate the unity that had characterized tribal societies. He contrasted such “closed societies” with the “open society” represented by liberal democracy. In closed societies, thinking is governed by “taboos” which prohibit the questioning of certain ideas, whereas in open societies, ideas can be debated and challenged. Politics requires the existence of an open society or one in which people can freely express their opinions and in which ideas and authority can be challenged.

Politics as a way of creating public policy may therefore be contrasted with coercion, violence, authority, and ideology. It may also be contrasted with expertise or science. Expertise differs from ideology in that it is based on reason and evidence rather than on faith and conviction. We may accordingly contrast religion and ideology on the one hand with science on the other. In the case of the two former kinds of belief system, the content of belief reflects peoples’ values and desires. For example, socialists see equality as being the supreme value, whereas for liberals, it is liberty. In the case of science, the content of belief reflects the character of reality. Scientific knowledge has been tested empirically to see if it is valid. Such a process of verification does not occur in the case of religion and ideology. Science or expertise can be a source of public policy. This occurs when people seek to base public policy decisions on verified expert knowledge of what does and does not work.

A major debate within the study of public policy has been about the relationship between politics and rationality. Some argue that public policy decisions should be based on rationality rather than on politics. Such a viewpoint is often espoused by bureaucrats and policy analysts. At the basis of this belief lies the conviction that it is possible to make objective, rational, and value-free assessments of policy issues and to arrive at a decision that is “best” for the community as a whole. Such an approach underlies “rational” approaches to decision making such as cost-benefit analysis. Advocates of this approach argue that we can identify policy options, rank them in terms of their suitability for attaining a given outcome, and select the one that is best, that is, that is most likely to result in the attainment of the desired outcome. This view underlies the idea that we can separate “politics” and “administration” as activities. Politics is assumed to be the process of selecting policy goals, whereas administration is the process of selecting the best means of attaining those goals. The former of these activities is the province of the politician, whereas the latter is the province of the administrator or official.

Critics of this view argue that rationality can never supplant politics in policy making. This is the case for a number of reasons. First is the fact that judgments about what is “best” are inevitably based on people’s values and preferences. The fact that people hold different values and therefore subscribe to different notions of what is “best” means that policy making inevitably remains a matter of debate, conflict, and negotiation rather than of disinterested analysis. This is the case even if such judgements concern not the ends of policy but the question of what is the best means of attaining them. Critics therefore argue that we cannot cleanly separate politics and administration as activities. Even within authoritarian political systems, we encounter “bureaucratic politics” in which different agencies take different viewpoints regarding the desirability of certain policies.

Such bureaucratic politics also occurs within democratic political systems where it is often known as “departmentalism.” This refers to the tendency of particular departments or agencies to habitually take particular policy positions or “lines” on policy issues. For example, finance departments typically seek to reduce government spending since their role as the central agency responsible for exercising control over spending departments is to restrain spending. Other departments likewise adopt particular policy lines which are shaped by their function or role. The idea that we can have an objective or impartial analysis of policy issues is belied by the fact that administrators themselves often advocate different solutions to policy issues. Writers have drawn attention to the fallibility of analysis or the fact that people often do not know what the best solution to a policy issue is given its complexity, the uncertainties about the outcomes of actions, and the limitations of human cognitive capacities.

Another problem with the view that it is possible to replace politics with rationality is that policy issues involve the self-interest of different policy actors. The fact that policy actors have different interests which may conflict means that policy making involves argument and negotiation rather than rational analysis. Rationality itself is subject to limitations in the sense that a comprehensive analysis of all options may not be feasible, given the limitations of time and money. Many students of public policy have noted that we do not find “comprehensive rationality” in which all possible options are considered and analyzed but “incremental analysis” in which policy changes in small increments. Power within polyarchies is shared among different policy actors rather than centralized in the hands of a single actor. Decision making within polyarchies therefore involves the political process of debate, negotiation, and compromise rather than a choice made by a single all-powerful agent.

Students of public policy making have, for example, noted the emergence in recent decades of “governance” as opposed to the “government” within the policy making processes of liberal democracies. Whereas government involves a centralized executive making and executing decisions in isolation and imposing them on other policy actors, governance involves the sharing of power between the executive and other policy actors such as interest groups. The term “policy community” has emerged to describe the fact that policy is made by negotiation between politicians, government agencies, interest groups, courts, and the mass media. The term “policy networks” has also been used to describe the way in which policy emerges from process of collaboration or “mutual adjustment” between policy actors. Politics occurs within policy communities and policy networks in so far as policy actors possess different material and ideal interests which are reconciled by means of negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. To understand policy making within such communities, we need to pay attention to how different policy actors interact rather than to focus exclusively on the formal institutions of government such as the legislature and executive.

Politics as an activity occurs in various venues. There is electoral politics when parties or individuals compete to gain electoral endorsement. Much of this occurs within the mass media in the form of political advertising and news reporting. Within parliamentary systems of government, there is parliamentary politics which arises when government and opposition confront each other in parliament. In multiparty governments that involve coalitions between different political parties, there is a politics that occurs within such governing coalitions. Within systems of government in which there is a single governing party, there is intraparty politics which occurs when candidates and politicians compete against each other for preselection and advancement and when engaging in political debates and controversies. Within the bureaucracy, there is bureaucratic politics. This occurs within government agencies when individual bureaucrats pursue sectional agendas. It can also occur between agencies when they engage in political conflict behind closed doors out of the public gaze. There is also politics within policy communities when politicians, bureaucrats, the media, courts, and interest or advocacy groups seek to influence government decision making. In federal systems of government, there is intergovernmental politics that occurs in negotiation and bargaining between the state and federal governments. At the broadest level, there is international politics when states deal with other states via negotiation and diplomacy.

In addition to these venues of politics, there is also the question of what role politics plays in shaping public policy. Other ways of creating policy include expertise, ideology, and authority. Governments hold the formal authority to make and implement policy. Politics is one means by which other policy actors in society such as the public, interest groups, and the media can influence the decisions that governments take. Political systems vary in the extent to which they permit politics to play a role in policy making. Within authoritarian and one-party states, the role of politics is extremely circumscribed as the state controls civil society and the media. There are often no independent political parties, advocacy groups, and independent media that can give voice to the concerns of the public and of non-state actors. Politics within such political systems occurs not in public venues but in private, in the form of intraparty and bureaucratic politics. Within such political systems, public policy is mainly shaped by a mixture of authority, expertise, and ideology with a limited role for politics. Within liberal democracies or polyarchies, power is not monopolized by the state and there is room for non-state actors to shape policy. The holding of periodic elections ensures that politicians must account to voters for their actions and thereby gives the general public some influence on public policy. The existence of an independent media and of advocacy groups means that non-state actors can influence the policy agenda and thereby the decisions taken by the state. This view of the policy process sees it as exemplifying “pluralism” or a dispersion of power throughout society rather than its concentration in a single monolithic authority.

Some writers question this depiction of the way that public policy is shaped within liberal democracies. They argue that the distribution of power within liberal democracies is unequal and in particular that certain interests have more power than other types of interests. Writers point to the “privileged position of business” in the policy making process. Business occupies such a position since it controls investment in the economy. Governments in a sense share power with business since within a market economy it is the price mechanism rather than government fiat that determines the distribution of goods and services. Business also enjoys reserves of wealth that enable it to fund lobbyists to act on its behalf and to make donations to politicians who are business friendly. It is argued that governments can only govern with the “consent” of business since if governments take actions that are inimical to the interests of business, then business will seek to overturn such decisions or withdraw their investment. In an age of economic globalization, capital is mobile and can be withdrawn from nations that are regarded as being business unfriendly and reinvested in those nations that are more receptive toward the interests of business. Others draw attention to the way in which public opinion is shaped by the mass media and to the way in which ownership of the media is concentrated in the hands of wealthy media proprietors who favor pro-capitalist policies.

Habermas saw the public sphere as being an arena in which different viewpoints could be voiced and in which people could engage in dialogue about issues of public importance. In modern societies, the concentration of power in the hands of a handful of media proprietors and the predominantly one way nature of communication within television, radio, and newspapers means that instead of dialogue we find a situation where public opinion is molded by media indoctrination. Marxist writers allege that there exists a form of ideological hegemony in which the ruling class exercises power over the subordinate class by means of indoctrination and ideology. Such a viewpoint sees modern liberal democracies as being akin to totalitarian states in so far as people in both cases undergo indoctrination. The difference is that in the case of totalitarian states the mass media are controlled by the state, whereas in the case of liberal democracies, the mass media are controlled by the capitalist class. In addition to the role of the mass media, exponents of the thesis of ideological hegemony point to the role of the education system in inculcating pro-capitalist ideas in people. Such critics of capitalist liberal democracy see government as being antipolitical and essentially authoritarian since public opinion is shaped by indoctrination. Some issues (such as the highly unequal distribution of wealth and income) rarely make it onto the policy agenda because they are not seen by most people as being a problem. If we take this viewpoint, then the role of politics is more restricted than many imagine it to be. Policy choices do not reflect the influence of politics but the influence of power. Others argue that politics does matter and point to the fact that different nations adopt different policies. Such differences reflect the role of different political forces within each nation.

Politics can play a role at different stages of the policy process. The first stage is that of agenda setting or problem definition. Issues get placed on the policy agenda as a result of the efforts of political actors such as politicians, interest groups, and the mass media. The definition of policy problems also reflects politics since people define problems in different ways depending on their values. Here political ideologies play an important role since ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, and conservatism portray society in different ways and provide different explanations for social problems. Definitions of problems will in turn shape how people select solutions to problems. For example, if we see the problem of unemployment as being due to an unwillingness of the unemployed to find jobs, then the solution that we favor is likely to be different to that of someone who sees unemployment as being due to an absence of job opportunities. The next stage of devising solutions to problems occurs mainly within the executive arm of government and in particular within the bureaucracy. Here we encounter bureaucratic politics. In implementing policy solutions, there can also be a “politics of implementation” as different policy actors seek to secure different outcomes by means of negotiation and bargaining.

Finally politics occurs in different institutions. Institutions in this context refer to the way in which politics is structured through rules and the way in which power is distributed and regulated. Examples of political institutions include constitutions, electoral systems, political parties, laws, courts, the mass media, interest groups, executives, and assemblies. Political systems differ markedly in terms of their institutional structures. We may broadly differentiate between authoritarian and polyarchic or democratic systems of government. Within the former, the role of politics is circumscribed as decisions are taken by those in authority without much influence being exercised by nongovernment actors. Within democratic political systems, the role of politics in shaping public policy is much greater as the topmost power holders in government are elected by voters. Different political parties within democracies seek to gain office by competing for the people’s vote at elections. Interest groups and advocacy groups seek to influence the decisions that are taken by government by lobbying politicians and officials and by using the mass media to voice their opinions and to influence public opinion. The mass media within a democracy is not controlled by government and can exert influence on government and act as an organ of public opinion. Within assemblies such as parliament, governments can be questioned and held to account for their actions by the opposition. Where there is a “division of powers” between the executive, judiciary, and legislature, each arm of government can act as a check and balance on the powers of the other arms of government. Within federal systems of government, power is divided between state government and the federal government, and there can be a politics of federalism in which the federal and state governments seek to negotiate policy outcomes.


Politics is the means by which a community makes collective decisions. Such decisions when taken by government take the form of public policies. Politics may be contrasted with authority/coercion, science, and ideology as ways of making policy decisions. Politics occurs when people disagree about collective decisions and when power is decentralized. In these instances, people seek to persuade, negotiate, and compromise with others in order to reach a collective decision. By contrast, where power is centralized, collective decisions are imposed by a central power holder upon others. In making such decisions, power holders may be guided by ideology or science. In the latter instance, decision makers seek to make the “best” or most rational decision, that is, to select the means that is best adapted to the attainment of a given end. The limitations of the rational model of decision making entail that politics plays a role in public policy making. We may contrast authoritarian political systems in which power is centralized with polyarchic or democratic systems in which power is decentralized. Politics plays a greater role in shaping public policy in the latter. The extent to which power is actually decentralized within democracies has been a matter of debate with some academics arguing that business wields disproportionate power compared to other groups. Politics occurs in different venues and at different stages of the policy process and occurs within different institutional contexts.


Further reading

  1. Beetham D (2005) Democracy: a beginner’s guide. Oneworld Publications, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  2. Colebatch H (2002) Policy, 2nd edn. Open University Press, BuckinghamGoogle Scholar
  3. Crick B (2005) In defence of politics. Continuum, LondonGoogle Scholar
  4. Heywood A (2013) Politics, 4th edn. Palgrave Macmillan, HoundmillsGoogle Scholar
  5. Lindblom C, Woodhouse EJ (1992) The policy-making process, 3rd edn. Prentice Hall, Englewood CliffsGoogle Scholar
  6. Matheson C (2009) Understanding the policy process: the work of Henry Mintzberg. Public Adm Rev 69(6):1148–1161CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Minogue K (2000) Politics: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Flinders University of South AustraliaAdelaideAustralia