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Costs & Benefits of Alternative Public Policies

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

When one policy doesn't work, we can start developing alternatives. But, how do we know if this will be any better? In this lesson, we'll consider the costs and benefits of alternative public policies and see how policymakers analyze this issue.

Alternative Public Policies

Is it the government's job to keep society running? Today, most people have decided that yes, the government has at least some obligation to this. As a result, we're left debating the set of laws, regulations, and strategies designed to improve society known as public policy.

Public policy begins when a societal problem is identified. Maybe we're concerned about healthcare, jobs, or public safety. Once we've identified a problem, experts work to propose solutions. Thus, public policy includes the process by which problems are identified, solutions are developed, and changes are implemented, all with the goal of achieving a specific outcome. But, what happens when the policy doesn't work? To put it simply, if one solution isn't working, it may be time for an alternative public policy.

Analyzing Alternative Public Policies

Unlike regular public policies, alternative public policies are designed to correct a problem we've already identified and tried to fix. This means that alternative public policies are born out of policy analysis, the process of researching the impacts, effectiveness, and consequences of a policy. Once our research has shown that the original policy is ineffective, we can start proposing alternatives.

If the city build playgrounds, but nobody uses them, you need to analyze the root of the problem before creating new policies.
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Since it comes from analysis, alternative public policy is always closely tied to the process of policy analysis. This analysis will take different forms in different stages, which we can lump into two loose categories. A predictive analysis looks at the problem and proposes a new solution, predicting how this alternative policy will work; the analysis is aimed at the policy's feasibility and what the consequences of the policy could be. After the alternative policy is implemented, we start conducting a descriptive analysis, which examines whether or not the policy is actually working as predicted.

Costs & Benefits

Throughout the entire process of policy analysis, there are a lot of questions we have to ask. We need to know exactly how a policy will be implemented, who it will reach, how it will be enforced, who will pay for it, and what economic, social, or political impacts it could have. However, if we break all this down, we'll see that it really becomes a question of two issues: cost and benefit.

First, let's examine the benefits of a policy. This rough category of questions seeks to address the positive impacts of an alternative public policy. In particular, the question we need to ask is whether the alternative policy is reaching people or fixing a problem it wasn't before. We need to make sure the benefits have expanded in some sense.

For a predictive analysis, we could examine the root issues as to why the original policy isn't working, and theorize as to why an alternative would correct these issues and expand the benefits. We could study other examples of people who have dealt with these issues before, and see how their policies succeeded or failed. For a descriptive analysis, we can examine the reach of the policy, and see if people are benefiting as predicted.

Some policies seem to offer great benefits, but start to lose luster when we consider costs. How much money will it take to actually implement this policy? Where does that money come from? Will this cost be offset in future benefits, or will it lead to long-term economic problems and debt that cancel the benefits? These are questions we have to address in predictive and descriptive analyses as well, ensuring the benefits won't be achieved only to create a worse situation later.

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