Policy is an intentional system of rules to guide certain activities and reach reasonable results. It is an enacted statement of purpose and is typically implemented as a rule or procedure. Most policies are formally adopted by an organizational governance body usually at a board level. A policy may be either specific or general in nature. A well-designed policy can lay the foundation for strategic planning, but even a well-written policy is seldom if ever implemented successfully without having a base or foundation of principles or underlying assumptions.
The United States Congress, over the course of the past 50 years, has enacted hundreds of laws and regulatory amendments that have attempted to position the federal government in an increasingly defined role and in an increasingly defined way. In this light, the concept of governmental policymaking has become more complicated, more vague and, consequently, more difficult to govern. While the creation of a single governing body to enact policy was inevitable in the evolution of government, the evolution has actually had a rather mixed result.
Policy must, therefore, not be seen as an end in itself, nor should it be treated merely as an adjunct to other institutional arrangements in society. Rather, policy must be viewed as a significant part of an overall understanding of how organizations operate, how they make decisions, how they are regulated and how they should be evaluated in terms of their effectiveness. No matter how well-intentioned a given public policy may be, the reality is that no public policy can succeed to the degree that its proponents believe that it will. Policy, instead, is part of the fabric of society and the functioning of any particular organization (including government) unless and until it is effectively practiced. In this regard, organizations may take policy seriously, but they cannot be successful unless their policies are implemented.
As noted, a single governing body cannot effectively control all aspects of any organization, including public policy. Thus, when organizations try to implement policies, they must take into consideration not only the interests of those who will be affected by their implementation, but also the interests of other interests that may be beyond their control. This dual aspect of public policymaking makes the practice of political science particularly interesting, since it offers us an unusually well-rounded view of how organizations operate and how they should be regulated. Political science is, essentially, the study of politics. By studying how organizations affect one another through their policies and politics, and then exploring these effects in the context of larger frameworks such as the theory of the policy cycle, political scientists have made important contributions to the study of public policy.
One area in which this field has made important contributions to the development of public policy is in the area of international relations. International relations is an often neglected area of political science. International relations is an arena in which many competing public policies and agendas are fought. Studying international affairs thus requires not only a thorough understanding of how different polities attempt to regulate global public policy, but also a detailed analysis of how these policies and goals are actually implemented and what sorts of actors are actually affected by them. In this area, both public policy and the foreign policy of different international organizations are studied with respect to the different interests of the various actors involved.
Public policies can themselves be quite complex. But the unintended consequences that such policy outcomes can have on the actors that enact them can be far-reaching and significant. For instance, suppose that a legislature passes a bill that legalizes marijuana for medicinal purposes. But the unintended consequence of this legislation is that hundreds or thousands of people in other states who do use marijuana for medicinal purposes are arrested each year for violating the law, many of which end up jail time.