It’s true. I am a policy wonk. I am endlessly interested in it. I read about it, think about it, talk about it and … write about it. (As in, what I’m doing right now.) And I do all of this because I think it’s immensely important. Crucially important. Vitally important.
Public policy is how the government – whether local, state, provincial, federal, or any other level – takes action on a particular issue. It covers a whole huge range of potential state actions – allocating and spending money, setting and enforcing professional guidelines and standards, creating agencies and staff, structuring tax incentives, even defining what constitutes criminal behavior. That’s an extremely big category that clearly has an enormous and unparalleled effect on the world.
Public policy not only drives state and governmental actions, it also has enormous influence on private sector actors. Tax policy can encourage specific areas of business, grants can encourage specific methods or practices, and governments both licence and regulate businesses. This combined effect on public and private actors means that to my mind, changing public policy is the quickest and most effective way to change things for a big group of people, all at once.
Policy touches almost everything we do and everything with which we come into contact. Right now, I am sitting on my bed, the mattress of which complies with regulations to prevent it going up in flames. I am wearing a shirt made in the United States by workers subject to minimum wage laws and industrial safety protections. The US shirt manufacturer is protected from competition from international producers by trade tariffs and taxes. The soda I am drinking displays nutritional information pursuant to federal regulations. The internet I am using is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Even the air I am breathing is affected by pollution standards and the decisions to grant or deny permits to things like coal processing plants. Even my kitty is included – she’s protected from abuse by criminal statute and, where I live, is protected from declawing. And that’s just scratching the surface of all of the policies surrounding and affecting me right this second.
There are, of course, a lot of other factors and forces that influence how people interact with the world, both as individuals and in groups. There’s huge effects from family, religious, cultural, and ethnic beliefs and traditions. Then there’s a myriad of individual differences – the things a person reads and watches and talks about and is talked to about, for example. I would argue that each of those things could also be influenced by government policy – like how the private movie ratings system created as a reaction to public regulation prevented me from seeing R movies until I was at least 16, or what books my local public library system bought and so were available for me to read. I’d also argue that individual preferences and differences are a lot less important than public policy in determining whether an area has a functioning health care system.
There are obviously a lot of difficulties with public policy. First, it’s mainly done by politicians, so political climate and general popular opinion can limit the range of what policies can achieve. For example, the United States could never have created a government-run nationalized health care system given the current makeup of our decision makers. Second, achieving specific goals through policy can be kind of complicated and difficult – if you were the government and wanted to “fix the education system,” it’s not exactly clear what specific steps would reach that outcome, even if we could agree on what a good education system would look like. Third, the differences between a policy as carefully written down and a policy as actually implemented can be vast, so a great policy may end up being too difficult or complicated or expensive or just impossible to implement, or may end up being significantly watered down.
At the end of the day, though, policy is literally life and death. Whether a mentally ill teenager gets tased or shot by a police officer depends on law enforcement policy, training, and management. Whether a PWD can afford and access the medications and equipment they require to live. Policy determines how and why and for how long and under what circumstances people are institutionalized. Whether and how they are protected from abuse and neglect from caretakers and family. Whether and when and how they have children.
So in the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about policy. Good policy, bad policy, and everything in between. Policy often doesn’t feel as sexy or gripping as a lot of the other topics we discuss here, but I’m hoping you’ll find it as interesting and important as I do.