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Public Policy Tools

The major challenge for democratic governments is to effectively influence the behavior of citizens. Thus, we must examine certain tools and practices and why they are effective in implementing policy change and democracy. 


Regulating and influencing behavior is critical for governments. Governments employ a number of tools such as legislation, sanctions, regulations, taxes and subsidies in order to change behavior in the interest of the public. The rising number of policy problems has created a challenge for governments to influence behavior. Moreover, traditional tools and practices in implementing policy may be limited and ineffective in light of our current environment.

The practice of regulation as a tool of government is very effective. Regulation refers to a set of laws for identifying what is permissible and impermissible for individuals, firms and government agencies. It is accompanied with sanctions and rewards. Thus, its strength lies in the way it restricts behavior that threatens public health, safety, welfare or well‐being. These traditional tools depict the idea of command and control and include harm-based standards, design standards, technology specifications, and product bans or limitations.

In recent times, this approach has been criticized for its lack of flexibility, rigidity and rule-making. Furthermore, according to the 1995 congressional Office of Technology Assessment’s publication, Environmental Policy Tools: A User’s Guidethese tools are “developed to provide due process to parties affected by agency actions with the effect of law,” and so create delays to make people frustrated and reluctant to change. Such regulation is seen as an illegitimate intrusion of government into the economy. In response to this, is the introduction of multisource tools which allow for greater flexibility by the way in which they comply with specific targets. Multisource tools allow for prevention and control without setting specific targets by providing knowledge and financial assistance through subsidies and the provision of information.

Both sets of tools identified are critical in implementing policy change. Ideal policies must be cost-effective, fair, place no demands on government, provide assurance to the public that certain goals will be met, consider equity and justice issues, be adaptable to change and encourage technology innovation and diffusion. However, it is clear that traditional tools such as regulatory measures lack adaptability to change and create barriers to responsive policies and innovative solutions.

Upon examination of policy tools and their implementation, it is apparent that a major barrier to governments in delivering key policy initiatives is a detached and inactive public. Democracy demands that policy makers promote opportunities for individuals to participate in society and influence decisions that concern them. This is a central feature of representative democracy. Of increasing importance too, is the role of public debate which functions as an indicator of the state of democracy. Public officials must further understand the extent to which democratic policies can be employed and in what context. This can be done through assessments of the status of democracy.

Evidently, the rise of diverse policy problems has made the process of influencing human behavior indeed very intricate. Consequently, policy makers must fully grasp all the factors which influence human behavior. This requires a better understanding of how the traditional policy tools can be supplemented by insights from multisource tools. When this is achieved, we ensure significant potential payoffs and effective outcomes.


By Dana-Marie Seepersad

Seepersad is a PhD student in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University.


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