Examining Aspects of Public Policy Through Theory

In the past few weeks, I have been exploring the field of public policy which I find interesting due to its power to reflect and shape our society’s values and priorities. Social policy, in particular—healthcare, education, the welfare system, etc.—intrigues me the most due to its more human-centered/human-facing components. As a preliminary part of my research, I spoke to three UR professors individually—Dr. Thad Williamson (Leadership), Dr. Monti Datta (Political Science), and Dr. Jennifer Erkulwater (Political Science) regarding their thoughts on the general public policy “organizational” environment/culture and the pros and cons of that particular structure.

Each professor shared with me their definitions of both public and social policy—how they differ and how they are the same—and overall, I learned that while both have elements of economics, public policy is more strictly economics-driven. Generally, economists have the goal of creating and working within perimeters of efficiency. Simply put, they assess the resources we have and find both short- and long-term ways in which we can best take advantage of them. Additionally, their main task is to improve economic wellbeing for the society-at-large, or rather, increase the rates of wellbeing in our country.

This made me think about the dissonance of the ideas of philosophers Niebuhr and Rawls. While Niebuhr believes that justice can only come about through the intentional dismantling of undemocratic and self-serving institutions and structures, Rawls suggests that economic inequality will always exist and we must try to address them before, or as they arise. In my opinion, Rawls writes through a more hypothetical and optimistic lens, while Niebuhr is more committed to finding tangible change to current, real-world problems. From my conversations with these professors, it seemed to me that they feel the public policy sector dealing with pure policy often leans towards Rawls’ side of the argument. This theoretical framework can often be effective and efficient, as mentioned, but it does not always adequately support all Americans in the way that it could if it sought to eliminate all inequality.

While this concept of improving the general wellbeing of the group could work for individual institutions, to apply this concept to an entire country becomes complicated. Thinking about the “group-at-large” disallows economists from thinking about those who are living way below the poverty line, or those who have been historically marginalized for years so are already “behind” in terms of economic and social wellbeing. Social policy is the part of public policy that denotes policies that have to do with people, not regulation of business, transportation policy, environmental policy, etc. Therefore, these policies often have the potential to be more human, economic-, and history-informed decisions that try to support individuals who find themselves in a wide array of socioeconomic situations.

Additionally, this conversation reminds me of Bales’ concept of the bifurcation of leadership that generates both a socio-emotional response and one that is more task-oriented. While the context here is different, it appears that general, pure policy work serves as the task-oriented aspect of this leadership process, while the social policy addresses the holes/gaps that are missing at the end of the day—the socio-emotional, slightly more humanizing approach. While I recognize that this assumption generalizes this industry/both of these sectors, my conversations with professors allow me to see its complexity as well and continue to figure out how I’d like to be a part of this kind of work in the future.