What is good public policy?

Public policy is the backbone of many meaningful changes that occur in society. Without it, we would lack solutions to the problems that affect us all. These policies are designed to improve life on a national level but also at a smaller scale, impacting specific groups and communities.

The process involved with implementing such significant changes is arduous, and it’s an exercise that takes time, effort and a number of skilled professionals to achieve. But even when all the steps are followed in the proper order, a successful outcome is not always guaranteed.

To gain a better understanding of how our government creates and implements the policies that shape the world we live in, we need to dive deeper. More specifically, we need to unearth what makes public policy effective. We’ll explore what public policy is, why policy is needed and the criteria for its success.

Defining public policy

Public policy is a combination of laws, funding priorities, actions, behaviours and plans that a government entity has adopted. The policies are in place to address a specific problem. Ideally, within the policy is a framework in which the related entities and their representatives can make decisions by following a predetermined approach.

The goal of most public policies is to provide solutions to problems so that citizens can have a better quality of life. These policies must be implemented without causing major political upset or adverse reactions from the public, which is why achieving implementation can be as tricky as it sounds.

In Australia, there have been many successful and unsuccessful attempts at public policy. They have been as headline-grabbing as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic or gun control policy changes introduced in the ‘90s. However, there are also lesser-discussed policies that are vital to the functioning of society, such as the roads we drive on or the public education standards our children are taught at.

Are legislation and policy the same thing?

The biggest misconception about public policy is that it is legislation. Although the law and legislation impact public policy, they are not the same thing.

Legislation refers to laws made by Commonwealth, State or Territory parliaments. . Policymakers rely on this legislation and legislative advice from experts to decide how the policy should be implemented.

Is government policy law?

Public policy is also sometimes confused with law, although, again, they are different things.

A law is an enforceable rule that aims to regulate behaviour. Public policy is more like a document that encompasses many laws, legislations, plans, actions and other things to move forward with change.

There may be times when a public policy leads to the creation of a new law, but it is not the written policy alone that creates the rule. Otherwise, a public policy might discuss existing laws and use them to solidify the need for or legitimacy of the plan.

What is the difference between policy and procedure?

A policy is not a procedure, and vice versa. A policy sets parameters for decision-making and looks at how something could be done, usually with a broader focus. A procedure has a stricter definition of how something must be done and will contain specific steps that must be taken. A public policy may include procedures within it to help clarify certain elements.

Is public policy linked to human rights?

While human rights are linked to public policy, they are not the same. Human rights recognise that everyone must be treated fairly and equally and afforded the same freedoms. This includes civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s role is to monitor how the Australian Government meets the international human rights conditions set out by the United Nations. This includes new and existing government policies, programs and national laws.

Policymakers must consider the human rights perspective when planning a new policy and ensure they are promoting respect for these rights. Although it’s essential in government and non-government policies, it’s especially crucial in the public sector. Because of this, the public policy sector would benefit from employing more people with a background in human rights and law.

How is public policy made?

Public policy is realised through a comprehensive process, which usually follows the same general course regardless of the issue it discusses. A policy is a document that consists of plans, courses of action, resources, financial information, laws and legislation — all working together to help implement it — so it requires careful planning.

Many players are required to take a policy from its initial problem-identifying and solution design stages through to implementation and evaluation. This is a general outline of the steps for a brief understanding of the public policy process.

  1. Identify the problem. There must be a clearly defined problem that the policy is attempting to solve. The government and the public both need to recognise the problem as something that must be solved. This can impact specific communities, groups, states or the nation.
  2. Ask for expert input. Seek advice from experts like scientists, doctors, engineers and researchers to back up the need for the policy. This advice comes in the form of data and recommendations. Expert advice is also needed to assess the proposed course of action and its expected results.
  3. Consult and coordinate. Communicate with external and internal stakeholders in public and private sectors for advice and input. Consider who will be affected and how.
  4. Capacity to deliver. Determine whether you have the resources, staffing and funding to deliver on the policy. Seek resources such as funding, frontline workers, physical resources, land and more.
  5. Acceptance. The government decides which course of action to take and accepts the public policy. There may be amendments to the policy at this stage before final approval is given.
  6. Implementation. The government uses its goods and services to implement the process. They may also use or purchase resources from external providers.
  7. Evaluate the policy. After enough time has passed to make an assessment, the approach is evaluated to see whether it made an impact. This is done with data and expert input. Revisions to the policy are usually made to adjust future outcomes.

Why do we need public policy?

The broader aim of public policy is to offer a solution to a problem, and it achieves this by using a combination of laws, funding, plans and resources. On a more unambiguous level, however, there are specific reasons why we need public policy.

Ben Freyens is an associate professor and head of the School of Politics, Economics and Society at the University of Canberra, with a research background in public policy. According to Dr Freyens, there are a handful of reasons society relies on public policy.

  • Imperfection of markets. ‘We live in a market economy where most resource allocation decisions are left to the market and driven by supply and demand. Markets are far from perfect, so we need the government to do its part,’ says Dr Freyens.
  • Provide essential goods and services. Public policy can help the government to fill in the gaps. It helps them to identify where they’re needed to provide goods and services that might not be provided by others, like healthcare and education. This includes those that are already provided but done insufficiently.
  • Keeping costs down. The policies also help to keep the cost of living down for everyone. ‘We need the government to provide essential goods and services to society so that they aren’t exchanged through markets. Without it, the markets and players would be left to their own devices, making everything too expensive,’ DrFreyens says.
  • Correcting larger issues. Public policy can also allow the government to correct issues caused by markets. These include social and environmental problems like excessive air and water pollution. Sometimes, the only option is for the government to step in and act.

Examples of public policy in Australia

Public policy discussions are always popular in the media, whether good or bad. To understand what some of our more significant public policies have entailed in recent years, here are a few examples that show their breadth.

Murray-Darling Basin Plan

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was implemented after a 2012 agreement that the Basin needed to be protected for future generations and that its current water levels required management. The plan was developed to do this while supporting farmers and other industries that relied on the Basin.

The various strategies implemented by this policy included water restrictions, the development of infrastructure, water markets and trade, as well as compliance with new water rules.

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority publishes results from monitoring and reporting obligations in a report for the public to see.

COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 brought an unprecedented public policy challenge for Australia and the world.

The Australian Government introduced a range of measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and limit the rates of hospitalisation and death for its citizens.

These included economic support such as the Jobkeeper payment, support for families through childcare fee relief, expert committees, rapid antigen test distribution and a vaccine rollout.

Gun control

Australia introduced new gun laws after several mass shootings in the 1980s and 1990s.

After the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, where 35 people were killed and 18 seriously injured, a public policy was swiftly developed to curb gun ownership. This led to the National Firearms Agreement, which banned guns, including automatic and semi-automatic rifles as well as shotguns. Initiatives like the Firearm Buyback Program and National Firearm Registry formed part of the plan.

This policy effectively got most political parties and stakeholders on board, resulting in a sharp decline in deaths and injuries caused by firearms in Australia.

What is good public policy?

A good public policy is one that has successful and measurable outcomes, a policy that solves the problem it set out to address. And it does this while alleviating any political rifts or negative impacts that might arise elsewhere in society.

With that being said, according to Dr Freyens, there is no such thing as a perfect public policy.

‘Getting policy right is an art that requires combining skills, information, planning and several other factors,’ he says. Ensuring the success of a public policy means carefully considering all these factors and the stages of the policy cycle to which they critically contribute.

If policymakers can get the mix right, there’s a better chance that the policy will have successful outcomes. This is true for the development of new policies and the assessment of existing ones as well.

With that in mind, we’ve highlighted features in the planning, design, implementation and evaluation stages of public policy that are necessary for success.

1. An identified problem

The problem at the crux of public policy must be widely recognised. It should be a well-defined and broadly acknowledged problem that people are seeking a solution to. This is critical to garner support from the public and private stakeholders and the general public themselves.

2. A strong team of experts

The government must utilise experts to build evidence that supports its claims and policy based on facts and data.

This evidence assesses the current problem. Their assessment will also include evidence-formed advice about how the proposed policy implementation will help. Public policy has no integrity without reliable and factual evidence, so it’s crucial to get it off the ground.

Experts can be consulted after the problem at the core of the policy has been identified, or an expert can be the one to bring it to the attention of the government. Regardless, without facts and data presented by an expert, the legitimacy of the need for the policy will be lost.

3. Government backing

As crucial as expert evidence is, the government must support the public policy being introduced. Not only is support from the current government needed, but a policy should be strong enough that it can survive a change in government as well.

4. Engaged stakeholders

A good public policy has champions and stewards that push it forward. This is crucial at all stages of the process. There should be key players who know how to influence public policy to garner the support of the public and decision-makers.

5. Predetermined resistance

An understanding of the resistance that a public policy will receive is critical to getting ahead of it. You should never assume that a policy will be accepted as it is without some pushback, and be prepared to deal with this resistance.

6. Sufficient resources

During the planning and design stages of public policy, understanding the available resources is critical. It’s not enough to assume that there will be enough funding, resources or contributions from other parties, so you need absolute confirmation.

7. An evolving policy

There are always challenges that arise when designing and implementing a public policy. Policymakers that understand this evolution and are willing to adapt to any difficulties or changes will have a better chance at successful outcomes.

8. Effective evaluation

The evaluation process is just as important as the policy’s implementation and is crucial for measuring success. This requires data from different sources to evaluate the effectiveness of the policy and whether it should continue in a particular direction.

Features og a successful public policy. 1. An identified problem. 2. A strong team of experts. 3. Government backing. 4. Engaged stakeholders. 5 Predetermined resistance. 6. Sufficient resources. 7. An evolving policy. 8 Effective evaluation.

Should I study public policy?

Public policy is at the heart of most of the government's decisions, whether it’s focused on public health or climate change. The professionals who drive these policies must be experienced and knowledgeable enough to ensure that the policies achieve their desired results.

After seeing the steps involved with the policy process, you can better understand the need for dedicated people who can see them through. So, why study public policy?

Dr Freyens believes that the public policy career path is suited to people who want to make a genuine difference. Those who are passionate about delivering change where and when it’s needed.

‘It’s about making a difference to the country at large and specific communities or pockets in the country. You have to be interested in the problems that generate the need for policy intervention in the first place. If you are passionate about that, then you would be interested in what public policy offers.’

According to the National Skills Commission’s Labour Market Insights, the need for Policy and Planning Managers is experiencing moderate growth. They estimate a 5.7 per cent growth until 2026, indicating the need for more skilled professionals in this area.

Public policy career paths

You can take many career pathways after completing the online Master of Public Policy at the University of Canberra. The master’s degree will equip you for roles within government, private, intelligence and social sectors and deliver skills that can be applied to all stages of public policy.

The possible career options after completing the master’s degree include roles such as:

  • Director of Policy. This professional is responsible for developing public policy for their organisation, including executing it at a local, regional and federal level.
  • Policy Advisor. A policy advisor contributes to planning, designing and implementing public policies, as well as offering necessary legislative advice.
  • Director of Strategy and Governance. Directors lead the direction of an organisation’s strategy at government and non-government organisations.
  • Policy Lead. The policy lead is responsible for drafting the policy, reviewing changes and making amendments that occur during the consultation process.
  • Policy and Research Manager. This role within an organisation focuses on the research component of the policy. This includes planning, facilitating and evaluating the organisation's research as it pertains to policy making.

What do you learn in public policy?

The Master of Public Policy at the University of Canberra is a 100% online course that prepares you for a career in designing, implementing and assessing public policies. Nested within the course is the Graduate Diploma in Public Policy and either the Graduate Certificate in Policy Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Public Policy

The public policy postgraduate degree comprises 12 units that each run for seven weeks. The course can be completed online in a minimum of two years, and there are six intakes a year to begin your studies. This allows you to fast-track your career and start working directly with the public policy sector sooner.

If you’re interested in learning about what you study in public policy, these are just some of the units offered when you complete the course at the University of Canberra:

  • Foundations of Public Policy
  • Co-Design and Deliberative Engagement
  • Evidenced-Based Policy Analysis
  • Public Policy Research Project
  • Leadership, Risk and Managing Change.

To help you stay ahead of emerging industry trends, UC Online also offers a subject of Data Analytics in which students can learn key  methods of harnessing data and the value of using these insights to inform policy. 

The benefits of studying at the University of Canberra

If you’re wondering how to get a job in policy-making, studying the online Master of Public Policy at the University of Canberra is the best place to start. With no need for a bachelor's degree but with three years of relevant work experience, students can study the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy as an entry point into the Masters course. Better still, undertaking your studies with us gives you access to several unique benefits.

Flexible study format

The online study format offered by the University of Canberra gives students a more flexible path they can follow to suit their schedules. The live tutorials are delivered across the week at times that work for everyone, and they’re recorded so you can catch up on them later if you can’t make the live event.

In-demand skills

Follow relevant and modern coursework that can be applied immediately to your career. The University of Canberra has consulted with industry experts in public and non-public sectors to ensure that the units delivered are relevant to today's policy landscape, ensuring your skills are in demand.

Connections in Canberra

At the University of Canberra, students will benefit from the close relationship that the institution has with policymakers and the public sector given that they are in the capital city of Australia.

Recognised brilliance

According to Times Higher Education Impact Ratings 2021, the University of Canberra was ranked number two for young universities in Australia and number one in the world for reducing inequalities.

Learning outcomes

Once you’ve completed the master’s degree, you’ll be ready to excel at a career in public policy. The learning outcomes from the online Master of Public Policy include:

  • practical skills that will allow you to apply your knowledge in the public realm
  • an ability to critically analyse the relevant data that goes into making and assessing policies
  • a wide range of knowledge that can be applied to various levels and departments of government so that you can address all parties
  • skills in leadership and communication to help you make an impact with the policies you create.

Drive the change Australia needs

The University of Canberra’s online Master of Public Policy is the best pathway toward a career in public policy and a meaningful vocation that can make a genuine difference. You’ll graduate with the critical skills needed to plan, design, implement and evaluate the policies that shape our country’s future.

If you want to learn more about how to study public policy with the Master of Public Policy at the University of Canberra, speak to one of our student advisers. They can help you with course delivery, eligibility, upcoming intakes and more, alternatively apply today.