Public Policy

How Policy Gets Made

Summary How Policy Gets Made

Public policy is any rule, plan, or action pertaining to issues of domestic national importance. Public policy solves internal problems, such as how to protect citizens from toxic waste or how to ensure that all children get equal access to education. In order to be made official, public policy legislation goes through five steps:

  1. The national agenda
  2. Formulation
  3. Adoption
  4. Implementation
  5. Evaluation

The National Agenda

When something becomes a concern for a significant number of people, that concern becomes part of the national agenda, the list of things that the public wants the government to address. An issue becomes part of the national agenda for any of the following reasons:

  • As part of a larger trend: Some trends, like the rise in violent crime in the 1980s and early 1990s, lead people to demand government action, especially for stronger federal law enforcement.
  • After a major event: Sometimes, a single event forces an issue onto the agenda. The September 11th attacks, for example, led many Americans to demand an increase in national security. Likewise, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 prompted many to call for environmental protection.
  • Through an interest group: An interest group or members of a social movement work to raise public awareness of an issue. If enough people get involved, the issue can get put on the national agenda.
  • Speeches: Prominent politicians attempt to put an issue on the agenda through speeches. The president is particularly able to do this due to the amount of media coverage of the White House.

After an issue gets put on the national agenda, people will begin petitioning the government to take action.


Policy formulation determines how the government will respond to problems on the national agenda. Although people may agree that a particular problem exists, they might strongly disagree about how to remedy it. Members of Congress, executive branch officials, and interest groups may all propose solutions, which then prompt intense debate in the media and in Congress.

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