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Theorising public policy in Africa

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revised on 2023-09-13, 08:36 and posted on 2023-09-13, 08:37 authored by Goran Hyden

Public policy generally refers to the intended intervention by a government agency to improve conditions in society. Such policy is public because it is proposed and carried out by institutions representing the public at large. It is also public because it is acted upon in the public realm, i.e. the sphere that is open to everyone and thrives on transparency and accountability. In democratic countries, policies are typically contested. The making of public policy, therefore, is embedded in competitive politics. Multiple stakeholders may participate in the process of producing government policy, an activity that goes through several phases: (a) problem identifcation and defnition, (b) agenda-setting, (c) formulation, (d) implementation and (e) evaluation. Many textbooks have been written on public policy and its various phases, mainly from an American or European experience. The Instructor in a course titled Public Policy 101 would put together the reading drawn from this list of textbooks. Of concern here is not which books are chosen but what this literature has in common. Public policy is expressly about values – “who gets what, when and how”, as Harold Lasswell (1958), one of the pioneers of policy studies, famously put it. Public policy is further characterised by argumentation (Fischer and Forester 1993) and persuasion, e.g. through advocacy networks (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). Finding an economically optimal solution to a given problem, therefore, is an illusion (Lindblom 1959) because policy is the result of a political compromise, and unanticipated outcomes are often as prominent as those originally planned due to the complex nature of the process of making policy (Cohen, March and Olsen 1972).

Other Information

Published in: Routledge Handbook of Public Policy in Africa
See chapter on publisher's website:



  • English



Publication Year

  • 2021

License statement

This chapter is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Institution affiliated with

  • Hamad Bin Khalifa University
  • College of Public Policy - HBKU

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