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.

Example: The budget surplus was one of the key issues in the election of 2000. In the last few years of the Clinton Administration, the federal government ran a surplus for the first time in years, and many people had ideas about what to do with the extra money. Republican candidate George W. Bush pledged to return money to the public in the form of tax cuts, whereas Democrat Al Gore advocated using the money for some social programs, demonstrating how different people can offer radically different solutions to issues on the national agenda.


After debating the issue and proposals, the federal government chooses one policy solution and then passes new laws to adopt the new policy.

Example: After winning the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush worked with the Republican-controlled Congress to enact the tax cuts he had promised.


After a policy gets adopted, it must be implemented. The federal agencies charged with implementing the policy must determine exactly how they will carry it out. The federal bureaucracy promulgates the laws passed by Congress into specific policy, drawing up the rules and guidelines for putting the law into practice.

Example: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) was charged with enforcing the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act after it was passed in 2002. To do so, the FEC had to determine the nuts and bolts of how the law worked and had to create rules governing the enforcement of the new law.


People begin judging and evaluating a policy once it has been put into effect. Feedback might come from the people whom the policy serves, bureaucrats who monitor the implementation, and pundits and reporters who care about the issue.

Example: Many different public interest groups and think tanks, including the powerful Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, evaluate government policies.

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