Policy Primer

Policy comes to us from that fountainhead of democracy, the ancient Greek polis.

And, as government itself changed, expanded, multiplied and grown, so too has the nature of public policy.

In its most general sense, public policy refers to a plan of action that is designed to shape decision-making practices. Public policies, in the modern sense, usually take the form of official, written documents, such as the Vancouver’s Four Pillars drug policy, or decision making documents that are approved by provincial and federal Cabinets before being turned into law Policies shift over time and with changes in government, cultural norms and attitudes. Good examples can be found in Canadian foreign policy, such as how to address human rights as an issue when dealing with other, nation-state trading partners.

As a direction-setting activity, policy is responsible for allocating resources, setting priorities, guiding activities and shaping outcomes

In the quantum world of governance and decision-making the staple ingredient – policy – exists as both a “thing” and an act. The idea of policy often infers the idea of a rational process through which policy is developed in response to an issue, need or concern.

It starts with the apprehension of a problem or area of concern, proceeds through the identification and evaluation of options – sometimes called policy alternatives – and a determination of which of these might be the best one to deal with said problem or concern, and then finishes with the best option being selected, and then implemented.

The “policy” part of the process might then result in the articulation of decisions, the allocation of funds and resources, the creation of guidelines or laws or by-laws, or other such acts of jurisdictional authority.

Such descriptions suggest the identification of issues is an objective and impartial practice. In reality, the various points in this process are less neutral, less precise and more subject to political and cultural factors than suggested by conventional descriptions.  For those of us outside of government, the question is the way that we can be engaged in the process, and the strategies through which we can influence the outcomes based on own experiences of the city and the world.