Public Policy vs. Public Administration: How Do Public Organizations Get Things Done?

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Public administrator speaking

Public policies are the guidelines that government entities use to coordinate their various programs and initiatives. Public administrators are responsible for producing and managing those policies. Individuals who know how to root out societal problems and theorize policy-based solutions to those problems best perform this duty. A Master of Public Administration highlights the ways public administrators interact with public policy. The program helps graduate students develop the skills needed to make policy decisions for public organizations, such as governments and nonprofits.

What Is Public Policy?

Policies are strategies that organizations adopt to guide certain aspects of their operations. Public organizations use public policies to direct programs and services aimed at addressing issues within the communities they serve. Public policies target fields such as national defense, education, health, and agriculture to solve specific societal issues.

Government entities at each major level of government — local, state, federal, and international — can implement public policies. International public policies may incorporate the thoughts and opinions of foreign governments or international organizations, such as the United Nations, but domestic civil servants develop public policies that serve intrastate purposes. The needs of the public are constantly changing, so policymaking must be an ongoing process, continually re-evaluating existing public policies to keep them from becoming stale or ineffective.

How Do Public Administrators Use Public Policy?

Public administrators oversee the formulation, development, adoption, implementation, and evaluation of public policies. But the administration of public policy is not limited to government leaders. In most cases, the citizens of democratic nations have the ability to influence policy decisions by participating in public votes, lobbying for specific causes, or petitioning their government representatives. If a public policy vs. public administration issue emerges, the administrators should determine whether a more acceptable alternative policy option exists.

Apart from developing public policy, public administrators also supervise the implementation of policies throughout the communities they affect. They typically accomplish this using a top-down methodology. For example, if the federal government enacts a policy, it is responsible for ensuring that state administrators understand the goal of that policy and how they can achieve it. The same flow occurs between state and local governments. However, state governments can institute some policies that deviate from federal policies, while local governments have less autonomy and cannot really diverge from state or federal policy.

The Basic Steps of Creating Strong Public Policy

While no set method will always produce effective policies, public administrators can take some steps to guide them through the policymaking process. Each step is meant to help policymakers guarantee that a proposed policy cost-effectively solves a real public issue and has a positive (or justifiable) effect on the population. The steps are as follows:

  1. Identify a societal problem.
  2. Collect empirical evidence that confirms the problem exists.
  3. Investigate the causes of the problem.
  4. Determine how the current policy contributes to the problem.
  5. Develop solutions based on the findings.
  6. Analyze the options and select the best solution.
  7. Evaluate if the costs and benefits of implementing that solution are reasonable.

After taking these steps, the public administrator must consider outside political, social, and economic factors that may affect the success of the proposed policy. If the public administrator believes the policy can work, he or she should start the process of putting it into practice.

Core Skills Public Administrators Use to Create Successful Public Policy

This is not necessarily a comparison of public policy vs. public administration; they’re both parts of the governmental process. Aspiring public servants should ask what professional competencies they can hone to improve their ability to effectively administer public policy. The following skills are essential to a career in public administration, and professionals can sharpen each one through a Master of Public Administration program:

  • Communication. Public administrators need to leverage several forms of communication to get their ideas across to the people with whom they work to make policy, as well as to the members of the public whom policy decisions will affect. Therefore, public administrators must understand how to clearly articulate their thoughts through speech, different forms of media (e.g., text, video, and recorded audio), and formal presentations.
  • Strategic Thinking. Guiding policy decisions requires a broad perspective of the society that takes into account the needs of every stakeholder. Public servants who think strategically have the capacity to steer public policies in a direction that might not perfectly address everyone’s concerns but achieves progress toward solving pressing social issues.
  • Leadership. Public administrators are often government officials to whom the public looks for direction. With polished leadership skills, administrators can maintain the confidence of their constituents and earn the trust of their colleagues. Communities will take the policy decisions of their public administrators far more seriously if they exhibit the ability to lead.

Strong public policy limits inequity in nations, thereby increasing the quality of life for residents. Although public administration is not the only field that contributes to the design and implementation of public policy, an advanced public administration degree can help ambitious public servants develop the foundational skills they need to contribute to the process of creating public policy.

Learn More:

The online Master of Public Administration at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs can help you build the skills to address public needs in effective, efficient, and imaginative ways. We want you to take the big ideas in your head and put them into action by helping you develop as a project manager, communicator, policy analyst, and financial mind. When you have an expert understanding of public administration and the professional tools to back it up, you can lead a career of consequence for your constituents.

Recommended Reading

Ohio University Blog, “Why Choose Our Online MPA?”
Ohio University Blog, “Public Administration: Building More Diverse Public Organizations and Businesses”
Ohio University Blog, “Five Key Figures in the History of Public Administration”


The Center for Civic Education, About Us
The Center for Civic Education, Public Policy
US History, Policy Making: Political Interactions
Encyclopedia Britannica, Public Administration
Bizfluent, “The Five Stages of the Policy-Making Process”