Public Policy Themes
Public policy creation and study is a complex process that contains a variety of different perspectives and considerations, some practical and others less so. Ultimately, even the more political and seemingly impractical elements of public policy must be dealt with in a practical and pragmatic fashion, however; though certain themes in public policy reflect more about personal and subjective interests and desires than they do direct, actionable, and ideal goals for the public at large, accomplishing anything in public policy means finding a diplomatic balance that appeases the louder of the more subjective public elements. Understanding certain of the themes currently observed in public policy discussions can lead to a more effective development of public policy on directly practical and political terms.
One of the most pragmatic yet idealized themes in public policy is the sentiment that government should be run like a business. This theme implies several things about the perspective that should be brought to public policy study, discussion, and creation, may of which are directly and explicitly practical. One of the simplest yet most meaningful interpretations of this perspective is to see governments and government agencies as needing to work with the same capital restraints as bottom-line attention as a business: spending money before revenue is obtained or even secured is common for many governments, yet is impossible for a business for any length of time. If governments were run more like businesses, more realistic revenue streams and service programs would be established than are currently in existence for many government entities, with less waste and even potential for corruption.
This speaks directly to another interpretation of the “government as business” theme,” and touches on other current themes in public policy as well. Businesses serve stakeholders, including owners and consumers, and when it comes to governments the citizens are both owners and consumers. Governments must maximize the benefits to their stakeholders in the most efficient manner possible just like businesses, yet while this means profits for businesses it means serving the public interest for governments. It is here that the parallels of the first theme fade away, however, and the theme of serving the public interest takes over. The public interest is not served by short-term gains at the expense of long-term stability, which can serve certain businesses well; serving the public interest involves balancing short-term sacrifice with ongoing stability and long-term service provision.
Some themes of public policy have been brought even more firmly to the foreground in the recent years of economic turmoil and recession. “Focus on basic services” is a mantra of certain policy makers and taxpayer advocates alike, and this theme also resonates with and complicates other identified themes and goals. Basic service provision is very much a short-term goal, and while it is unquestionably the most necessary element of public policy — if the basic services of infrastructure, emergency services, etc. cannot be provided, there won’t be an environment where anything else can be accomplished — this cannot be the sole focus of policy. Ensuring basic service provision before developing and implementing plans that enable growth and long-term stability must be accomplished.
It is in circumstances such as these that the less directly practical and more political elements of public policy come into play. Demonstrating a strong focus on basic services while more quietly creating longer term plans, not in a way that reduces transparency but in a manner the calls less attention to itself is often necessary; even when such planning is in the public interest and is both practically and ethically warranted, not all elements of society will always agree on this point. Other highly politicized concerns, such as taxation, also call for highly politicized action in order to achieve the practical ends of serving the public interest with efficiency and effectiveness. Current calls for a cessation of any new taxes or tax increases do not reflect a truly pragmatic view of a situation in which spending — for the federal as well as many other governments — vastly outstrips revenue. Though spending cuts can reduce this imbalance, revenue increases will almost certainly be a part of the solution as well. Successful public policy creation in such periods must consist of creating revenue increases in a manner that reduces their appearance as taxes in the strict sense, appeasing political themes in the current debates while accomplishing the long-running practical aims of public policy.
Any word or phrase can become politicized, and any concept or action in public policy is liable to be interpreted in a political manner by certain parties. One of the keys to public policy is balancing the practical and the political implications of the various themes involved in the study and creation of public policy. These implications can be far reaching and complex, but are well worth pursuing to their pragmatic conclusions.
Section II: User Fees for Certain Municipal Services
While taxation — typically through a sales tax — is the most common source of revenue for a municipality and the manner in which it funds the bulk of its activities and service provisions, some services ought to be paid for directly through user fees for reasons of efficiency and fairness. Basic utilities are a prime example of such a service provided on a user-fee basis by most municipalities or other local governments for both of these reasons. Though it is the government’s responsibility to set up and maintain the production facilities and the provision infrastructure for services like electricity and water, simply paying for these services out of general tax funds would place an unfair burden on businesses and residences that used little in the way of utilities, while allowing major consumers to avoid full payment for what they use. Instead, fees are (typically) assessed on set basis per unit of usage, with billing and collection accomplished via mail and increasingly via Internet means. Costs for this collection are minimal, metering is accomplished with equally minimal expenses, and subsidies or special rates for low-income individuals can be easily made available in order to accommodate various abilities to pay.
Many municipalities operate certain recreational facilities that require large amounts of maintenance, labor, and liability coverage, such as swimming pools and skating rinks. Again, these are typically built and maintained with the use of general revenue and are often operated under subsidies or partial funding from general revenues, but there is also a user fee associated with these services as well. The rationale here is the same as it is for the sue of facilities; the use of these services is highly varied amongst community members, with some deriving enormous benefit from the services and some deriving no benefit whatsoever. It would be unfair to spread the cost of these services equally across all individuals, and it would also be inefficient to do so — revenues received from the user fees can be directly used to determine the amount of funds that should be allocated to these facilities, the amount of public good that these facilities create, and the overall actual cost-per-person of the facilities when balanced with revenues. With the collection of user fees at such facilities taking place on-site at the time of use, costs and resources required for the collection are very low and the overall efficiency of such funding is quite high.
Publicly operated parking structures or even metered street parking spaces represent yet another municipal service paid for via user fees. Once again, the rationale for this comes from the highly variable use of this service or resource by different members of the community, and again, the collection and administration of these fees is direct and virtually instantaneous. With the advent of more affordable wireless communication, many municipalities now employ meter devices that can process credit and debit card payments that allow for payment processing without the need for any labor resources to be devoted the collection of physical currency, making the fee collection even more efficient. Individuals are charged per allotment of time that they utilize the parking space, tying usage directly to the fees, which are then (typically) applied to road maintenance and other public infrastructure issues that support car travel and business or that subsidize public transportation to allow for more efficient transportation generally. This amounts to redistribution based on the use of resources.
Section III: The Policymaking Process
Policymaking can seem relatively straightforward at first glance, and in fact the process of making public policy can be broken down into only four basic steps, similar to many other processes and project cycles. An examination of each of the steps in the policymaking process, however, reveals that this undertaking is more complex and more fraught with potentials for conflict than this surface understanding suggests. From the number of players involved in policymaking and their varied perspectives and values, to the practical concerns and constraints that limit capabilities in every step of the policymaking process, the creation of public policy is hardly as straightforward or as direct as it initially seems. An examination of the four basic steps of policymaking reveals this quite clearly.
The first step in the policymaking process is the agenda setting that must come before policies are even considered. Bringing problems to the attention of policy makers and thus setting the policy agenda is accomplished by many different players with different aims, from citizen groups to businesses to media organizations and many others. All of these groups r individual representatives (and sometimes simple individuals) can use a variety of methods for setting the agenda, form private meetings with policy makers to speaking at town hall meetings or city councils to engaging in media or public awareness campaigns. In larger governments, lobbying is a major source of agenda-setting activity, as the interests of groups that engage lobbying services are brought to the direct and immediate attention of government representatives in what amounts to a pay-for-play system. The political elements of agenda setting tend to be substantial at all levels of government (Gerston 2011).
After the agenda is set and the specific problems that need to be addressed by public policies are identified, developing and adopting policies forms the next step in the policymaking process. Oftentimes, the same stakeholders that were involved in setting policy agendas remain involved in developing policy; if a police chief was instrumental in raising public awareness about a lack of police funding, for example, he might also be officially consulted as to budget needs and allocation measures before they are adopted. Many instances of public policy creation are required by law to obtain input from citizens or to conduct certain studies to determine needs, resource availability, impacts, etc., and all of the information gathered from such sources must form part of the considerations during the policy development phase. Finally, discussion and negotiation amongst different policymakers with different constituents or other values/interests must take place before policies can be adopted (Gerston 2011).
While it is often the most visible and directly relevant step in the policy process for most citizens, policy implementation is in some ways the most straightforward and basic steps involved. The development and adoption phase often (in efficient and properly conducted policymaking systems, at least) maps out the price resource allocations and other practicalities of policy adoption, and though forecasts are rarely exactly accurate they should be close enough to allow for smooth implementation. Still, there can be large numbers of departments, officials, and lower level employees involved in the implementation of public policy, and with certain policies the entire population of citizens is necessarily a part of the implementation procedure. Obviously, the greater the number of people involved the more complex and the less efficient it becomes to carry out the direct practical and physical elements of policy implementation (Gerston 2011).
The final phase in policymaking is the evaluation and termination process, which is sometimes viewed as evaluation a return to agenda setting. The two perspectives both involve the assessment of policy costs and effects in order to determine whether or not implemented policies achieved their purposed goals, as well as if these goals are worth the resource and time allocation necessary to implement the policies. If more efficient or effective means of attaining the same goals can be identified via the review process, the policy is likely to enter the development and adoption phase again, or possible changes to the policymaking environment might cause the agenda setting phase to again influence policy development in a specific area. If the policy is not part of an ongoing process, or if it comes to a close and is replaced or rendered obsolete for some reason, policy termination also involves certain complexities including the reorganization of human resources, ensuring all policy beneficiaries’ needs will be met, and that the other needs met by the policy will continue to be addressed in some manner. Typical players in this phase include policymaking officials and key individuals involved in the implementation of the specific policies involved (Gerston 2011).
Even this brief overview of the policymaking process demonstrates the complexity that exists in such an undertaking. From agenda setting through eventual termination, policymaking involves large numbers of stakeholders, each with their own interests and values. Balancing these and achieving real good is easier said than done.
Section IV: The Henry Flowers Case
When Henry Flowers applied to become the new attorney for the El Paso Independent School District, he and his sister Miriam, the president of the school board, certainly new that nepotism laws would create a certain conflict of interest. According to Texas Government Code Chapter 573, it is illegal for any official to vote in the hiring of a person related to them by blood or marriage, meaning that the president of the school board could have no part in hiring her brother. Miriam complied with this part of the law, and abstained form voting in the hiring decision, but this does not mean that the law was followed nor that the hiring of Henry Flowers can be upheld due to the nepotism laws. Chapter 573 goes further than simply prohibiting the involvement of public officials in the hiring of their relatives, and it is in this area of the law that Miriam overstepped her bounds.
After prohibiting the hiring of individuals related to an official by that official, Section 42 of Chapter 573 of the Texas Government Code reads, “A candidate may not take an affirmative action to influence the following individuals regarding the appointment, reappointment, confirmation of the appointment or reappointment, employment, reemployment, change in status, compensation, or dismissal of another individual related to the candidate within a degree described by Section 573.002: (1) an employee of the office to which the candidate seeks election; or (2) an employee or another officer of the governmental body to which the candidate seeks election, if the office the candidate seeks is one office of a multimember governmental body.” This is the particular statute that Miriam violated during the hiring process of her brother as the district’s attorney.
Spending ten minutes singing Henry Flowers’ praises to the rest of the board prior to recusing herself form the actual vote certainly constituted an “affirmative action” on Miriam’s part, in direct violation of the above-quoted statute. One could argue that Miriam is not technically a candidate, as she is already the elected president of the school board, and indeed the interpretation of this statute’s application to this case is not made clear in the law itself. Most school board positions are elected on an annual basis, however, and as such even office holders could be considered to be in a perpetual state of candidacy, making Miriam’s affirmative action illegal. It is also possible that the hiring of Henry Flowers would as the district’s attorney would be entirely impossible according to Section 44 of the same chapter of Texas Government Code, which prohibits any official from taking any part in the confirmation of an appointment of a relative to a position over which the official will have control or oversight. As the president of the board, Miriam will doubtless have to take part in the confirmation of Henry Flowers’ appointment to the position of the district’s attorney, and as this is the case there is no way for Flowers to be hired by the district in any capacity that reports to the board while Miriam is the sitting president.
Nepotism laws can have unintended consequences, including preventing good people form being hired to fill positions simply because they are related to decision makers. The ills caused by such laws are greatly outnumbered by the benefits of their protections, however.
Gerston, L. (2010). Public Policymaking: Process and Principles. Armonk, NY: M.E.
Texas Constitution and Statutes. (2011). Government Code Chapter 573. Accessed 14
October 2011. http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/
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