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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > P, Q > Public Policy

Public Policy

A course of action or inaction chosen by public authorities to address a given opportunity, problem, or related set of problems and opportunities.



Public policy has also been defined as "whatever governments choose to do or not to do" (Dye) or as a reflection of "the most important choices" (Lasswell).

Today, no government can claim to have all the tools or all the powers necessary to effect a complex policy outcome. Certainly, government is an important player, but one that must work with others to move society in a certain direction. Increasingly, government’s role is to set the agenda, bring the appropriate players to the table, and facilitate and broker sustainable solutions to public problems.

Bourgon provides the following insights on public policy, and the policy process today:

"The contemporary policy process is characterized by a dispersion of power and responsibility. There are many reasons for this: global markets have given rise to new issues of public concern that require global solutions; governments must increasingly work with other governments and many international organizations; and technology enables greater public access to the public policy process.

The dispersion of power combined with the capacity of modern information and communication technologies are at the root of the policy networks that have emerged as privileged arenas for public policy debates. In this context, it makes more and more sense to speak of governance: Governance can be defined as the traditions, institutions and processes that determine the exercise of power in society, including how decisions are made on issues of public concerns and how citizens are given voice in public decisions-making. Governance speaks to how society actually makes choices, allocates resources and creates shared values (Denhardt, 2003).

The OECD has studied various forms of citizens’ involvement in policy development and defines the primary characteristics of three common approaches:

Information: A one-way relationship in which governments provide information to citizens;

Consultation: A two-way relationship in which citizens provide feedback to governments;

Active participation: An ongoing exchange in which governments and citizens are involved in the content of policy making.

As the process of policy development changes, so do the roles of government, of elected officials and of public servants. Governments will continue to play the key role in setting the legal and political rules of governance, balancing interests, and ensuring that the principles of democracy and social justice are respected. In contrast, public servants are called upon to play new roles of facilitation, negotiation, and conflict resolution.


Bourgon, Jocelyne. 2007. “Responsive, Responsible and Respected Government: Towards a New Public Administration Theory.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 73 (1): 7-26.



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© University of Toronto 2008
School of Public Policy and Governance