Policy is an intentional system of rules to guide certain activities and reach rational results. A policy is an instruction statement and is usually applied as a process or rule. Generally, policies are typically adopted by an organization’s governance body as part of its overall business policy. However, organizations also adopt certain types of policies, which are outside the purview of governance.
An example of this would be a company’s human resources policies. Human resources policies may prescribe the minimum qualifications required for a potential hire, rules that companies must follow when recruiting other employees, rules that companies need to follow when hiring subcontractors, etc. A similar situation arises when an organization adopts certain types of policies. For instance, if an insurance company adopts insurance rules that mandate certain premiums be paid by every insured customer, there may be unintended consequences, such as a rise in complaints from unhappy customers.
One major category of policies is environmental policies. There may be instances where an environmental agency has enacted new regulations or rules to deal with a specific set of problems, for which it needs to implement new laws or rule. The unintended consequences of these laws or rule changes can be significant. For instance, the unintended consequences of a federal government rule that requires fuel producers to blend corn-based ethanol into gasoline may open the door for lawsuits from corn-beets farmers who have suffered financial harm due to the mandated change. Similarly, an increase in the price of gasoline by the Environmental Protection Agency may have unintended consequences on businesses and households.
The problem with the above example is that the desired goal of adopting a given policy may not align with the reality of unintended consequences. In a related context, we can say that an action-based policy cycle is characterized by four stages: engagement, planning, implementation and regulation. Engagement is where there is considerable engagement on the part of citizens and other actors in the policy cycle, and planning is when these actors are informed of the anticipated outcomes of their actions. Implementing the policies implies taking steps and making decisions. And regulation is the next stage, where the goals and objectives of the policy become clear.
This brief survey highlights some of the ways that policies may create unintended consequences. However, there are many more subtle issues, e.g., unintended consequences caused by the failure of plans to achieve their goals and objectives. If an organization adopts a set of policies, but those policies fail to achieve their goals, that failure may make citizens skeptical about other government programs, and that skepticism can make policy makers hesitant to take action in certain cases. Similarly, if there is already an established culture of surveillance over many American citizens’ Internet activity, there is no easy path to restore privacy on the Internet without changing how people use computers and the technology that computers provide. Hence, the unintended consequences of public policies are often easier to foresee than their consequences.
But if public policy fails to achieve its intended purposes, what then? Public policies can, in some instances, be changed in a way that makes the policies less likely to cause unintended consequences. An example of this is theioneural policy change, where laws are altered to achieve a different objective, or one that was thought to be within the jurisdiction of another branch of government (e.g., the creation of Medicare). Another example is when Congress passes a law intended to protect workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but unintentionally creates a loophole allowing gay sexual harassment in the workplace. And sometimes, even when public policy is enacted with the best of intentions, unintended consequences make the law meaningless.