California State University Long Beach

Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration

Summer 2002, Third Session



            These address how public policy is made. Policy-making is only one part of the entire policy process.





            Focuses on the traditional organization of government. Describes the duties and arrangements of bureaus and departments. Considers constitutional provisions, administrative and common law, and judicial decisions. It focuses on formal arrangements such as federalism executive reorganizations, presidential commission, etc. Traditionally political science has studied government institutions--Congress, presidency, courts, political parties, etc.--that authoritatively determine, implement, and enforce public policy. Strictly speaking, a policy is not a public policy until it is adopted, implemented and enforced by some governmental institution.


            Government lends legitimacy to policies, they are then legal; Government extends policies universally to cover all people in society; Government monopolizes the power to coerce obedience to policy, or to sanction violators.


            Traditional studies using the institutional approach focused on institutional structures, organization, duties and function, without investigating their impact on public policy.




            A policy-making elite acts in an environment characterized by apathy and information distortion, and governs a largely passive mass. Policy flows downward from the elite to the mass. Society is divided into those who have power and those who do not. Elites share values that differentiate them from the mass. The prevailing public policies reflect elite values, which generally preserve the status quo. Elites have hither income, more education, and higher status than the mass. Public policy may be viewed as the values and preferences of a governing elite. The elites shape mass opinion more than vice versa. Public officials and administrators merely carry out policies decided on by the elite, which flows 'down' to the mass. It assumes that

1)society is divided into the powerful few and the powerless many; only the few allocate values (the mass do not decide public policy).

2)The few are not typical of the mass; elites are drawn disproportionately from the upper strata.

3)There must be slow and continuous movement of non⌐elites into elite positions, but only after they accept elite values, in order to maintain stability and avoid revolution.

4) All elites agree on basic social system and preservation values, i.e., private property, limited government, and individual liberty.

5)Changes in public policy will be incremental rather than revolutionary, reflecting changes in elite values (not mass demands).

6)Active elites are subject to little influence from apathetic masses.


            Implications are that the responsibility for the state of things rests with the elites, including the welfare of the mass. The mass is apathetic and ill-informed; mass sentiments are manipulated by the elite; the mass has only an indirect influence on decisions and policy. As communication flows only downward, democratic popular elections are symbolic in that they tie the mass to the system through a political party and occasional voting. Policies may change incrementally but the elites are conservative and won't change the basic system. Only policy alternatives that fall within the range of elite value consensus will be given serious consideration. Competition centers around a narrow range of issues, and elites agree more than they disagree; there is always agreement on constitutional government, democratic procedures, majority rule, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to form political parties and run for office, equality of opportunity, private property, individual initiative and reward, and the legitimacy of free enterprise and capitalism. The masses cannot be relied on to support these values consistently, thus the elite must support them.




            Public policy results from a system of forces and pressures acting on and reacting to one another. Usually focuses on the legislature, but the executive is also pressured by interest groups. Agencies may be captured by the groups they are meant to regulate, and administrators become increasingly unable to distinguish between policies that will benefit the general public and policies that will benefit the groups being regulated. Interaction among groups is the central fact of politics. Individuals with common interests band together to press their demands (formal

or informally) on government. Individuals are important in politics only when they act as part of or on behalf of group interests. The group is the bridge between the individual and the government.


            The task of the political system is to

1) establish the rules of the game

2) arrange compromises and balance interests

3) enact compromises in public policy

4) enforce these compromises

            It is also called equilibrium theory, as in physics. Influence is determined by numbers, wealth, and organizational strength, leadership, access to decision makers and internal cohesion. Policy makers respond to group pressure by bargaining, negotiating, and compromising among competing demands. Executives, legislators, and agency heads all put together coalitions from their consistencies to push programs through. Political parties are coalitions of groups. The Democrats have traditionally been central city, labor, ethnics/immigrants, the poor, Catholics, liberals, intellectuals, blacks, and Southern blue collar workers. Republicans have been wealthy, rural, small town, whites, suburbanites, white collar workers, conservatives, and middle class.


            The entire system assumes:

1) a 'latent' group supports the rules of the game

2) there is overlapping group membership which keeps groups from moving too far out of the political mainstream

3) there are checks and balances on groups competition




            Relies on information theory concepts such as input, output, and feedback. Sees the policy process as cyclical. Asks, "what are the significant variables and patterns in the public policy-making system?" What goes on within the 'black box' of conversion of demands into public policy? What are the inputs and outputs? Public policy is viewed as the response of the political system to forces brought to bear on it from the outside environment. The environment surrounds the political system. In this model, "environment" means physical: natural

resources, climate, topography; demographic: population size, age, and distribution, and location; political: ideology, culture, social structure, economy, and technology. Forces enter the political system from the environment either as demands or as support. Demands are brought to it by persons or groups in response to real or perceived environmental conditions,

for government action. Support is given wherever citizens obey laws, vote, pay taxes, etc., and conform to public policies.


            The political system is a group of interrelated structures and processes that can authoritative allocate resources for a society. The actors are the legislature, the executive, the administrative agencies, the courts, interest groups, political parties, and citizens.


            Outputs are decisions and actions and public policy. The political system is an identifiable system of institutions and processes that transform inputs into outputs for the whole society. The elements with the system are interrelated and it can respond to forces in the environment, and it seeks to preserve itself in balance with the environment. The system preserves itself by producing reasonably satisfactory outputs (compromises are arranged, enacted and enforced). It relies on deep rooted support for the system itself and its use, or threat of use, of force.


            Macro level policies are those that concern the whole system, and are influenced by official and unofficial groups (media, etc.). It may center on the proper role of Congress or the President, or the relationships of government and business or citizens and businesses. Subsystem policies involve legislators, administrators, and lobbyists and researchers who focus on particular problem areas; also called sub-governments, policy clusters, coalitions, or iron triangles. E.G. civil aviation, harbors, agricultural subsidies, grazing lands, etc. Micro⌐level policies are efforts by individuals, companies, or communities to secure some favorable legislation for themselves. Typically presented to a legislator as a re\quest from the "home" district. The incentive to engage in micro-politics increases as the extent of government benefits, programs and regulations increases.


            It asks questions such as:

1) What are the significant characteristics of the environment that generate demands?

2)What are the significant characteristics of the political system that enable it to endure over time and turn demands into output?

3)How do environmental inputs affect the political system?

4)How do characteristics of the political system affect public policy?

5)How do environmental characteristics affect public policy?

6)How does public policy through feedback, affect the environment and the political system itself?




            This model posits three streams which are always simultaneously ongoing. When the three streams converge, a policy window opens, and a new policy may emerge. The problem stream focuses the public's and policy-makers' attention on a particular problem, defines the problem, and calls for a new policy approach (or else the problem fades). Attention comes through monitoring data, the occurrence of focusing events, and feedback on existing polices, though oversight studies os program evaluation. Categorization of the problem is important in determining how the problem is approached and/or resolved: values, comparisons, and categories.


            The political stream is where the government agenda is formed: the list of issues or problems to be resolved by government. This occurs as the result of the interaction of major forces such as the national mood, organized interests, and dynamics of public administration (jurisdictional disputes among agencies, the makeup of government personnel, etc>). The players are often quite visible, as members of the administration, appointees and staff, Congress, medica, interest groups, those associated with elections, parties and campaigns, and public opinion. A consensus is achieved among those groups and a bandwagon effect or title effect occurs as everyone wants to be in on the policy resolution and not excluded.


            The policy stream is where alternatives are considered and decisions are made. Here the major focus in intellectual and personal; a list of alternatives is generated from which policy makers can select one. Policy entrepreneurs and other play a role, such as academics, researchers, consultants, career public administrators, Congressional staffers, OMB staff, and interest groups. Trial balloons are sent up to gauge the political feasibility of various alternatives, either publicly or privately. They must be acceptable in terms of value constraints, technical constraints, and budgetary constraints. Consensus is developed though rational argument and persuasion (not bargaining). Tilt occurs when a plausible solution begins to emerge.


            When these three streams converge, a policy window may open, because of a shift in public opinion, a change in Congress, or a change in administration, or when a pressing problem emerges. Any one stream may change on its own, but all three must converge for a policy decision to emerge.





            1. Incremental Policy Output. This model relies on the concepts of incremental decision-making such as satisficing, organizational drift, bounded rationality, and limited cognition, among others. Basically can be called "muddling through." It represents a conservative tendency: new policies are only slightly different from old policies. Policy-makers are too short on time, resources and brains to make totally new policies; past policies are accepted as having some legitimacy. Existing policies have sunk costs which discourage innovation, incrementalism is an easier approach than rationalism, and the policies are more politically expedient because they don't necessitate any radical redistribution of values. This model tries to improve the acceptability of public policy.


            Deficiencies of Incrementalism–Bargaining is not successful with limited resources. Can downplay useful quantitative information. Obscures real relationship being political shills. Anti-intellectual approach to problems; no imagination. Conservative; biased-against far-reaching solutions.


            2. Rational Model. This model tries to understand all the alternatives, take into account all their consequences, and select the best. It is concerned with the best way to organize government in order to assure and undistorted flow of information, the accuracy of feedback, and the weighing of values. Related to techniques such as PERT, CPM, OR, and linear programming. This model tries to improve the content of public policy.


            Deficiencies of Rationalism--gap between planning and implementation. Ignores role of people, entrepreneurs, leadership, etc. Technical competence along is not enough (ignores the human factor). Too mechanical an approach, organizations are more organic. Models must be multidimensional and complex. Predictions are often wrong; simple solutions may be overlooked. The costs of rational-comprehensive planning may outweigh the cost savings of the policy.


            3. Public Sector Strategic Planning. An attempt to combine the incremental and rational approaches to public policy-making. It is an attempt to reconcile the day-to-day demands with long range strategies for the future. It doesn't see the organization as wholly determined by the

political environment, neither does it ignore risks. It takes an active stance (versus passive) toward the future with an outward looking, aggressive focus sensitive to the political environment. It tries to place the organization in a distinctive position vis-a-vis the political environment. It concentrates on making decisions (unlike the rational model) but blends rational analysis with economic and political analyses (unlike the incremental model). It is highly participatory and tolerant of controversy, it concentrates on the fate of the whole organization; the fate of subunits is secondary.


            4. Neo-institutionalist Model. Attempts to categorize public policies into 4 areas by the probability of government coercion--immediate or remote--and the object of government coercion--individual or systemic. The concern in this type of analysis is to relate these types of policy to the different branches of government and the behaviors associated with each policy area.