What are the Most Common Public Policy Issues?

Mike Howells

One of the guiding tenets of government is providing for the public good, often by offering services that, due to scale or cost, cannot be manifested privately or individually. The administration and management of these services is generally referred to as public policy. There are a number of public policy issues that are traditionally more important and controversial than others.

Transportation is a common public policy issue.
Transportation is a common public policy issue.

Some of the oldest and most timeless public policy issues include public health, public welfare, police and fire service, and transportation. Early civilizations, such as those in Greece, Rome, and the Middle East, grappled with the provision of public services, like supplying fresh water and the construction of roads. These ancient communities had to not only address the logistics of offering such services, but also had to reach a consensus on how to pay for them. This was generally accomplished through taxation.

Public policy is an attempt by a government to address public issues, such as healthcare or crime, by instituting laws, regulations, decisions, or actions.
Public policy is an attempt by a government to address public issues, such as healthcare or crime, by instituting laws, regulations, decisions, or actions.

Other public policy issues have evolved over time. Since the Victorian era, there has been an increasing public demand for sanitation, communications infrastructure, mass transit, and many other services that have been created as a result of technology. Another growing issue in the 21st century is environmentalism and conservation, particularly with respect to energy.

Public policy issues may involve providing civil services, such as proper sanitation.
Public policy issues may involve providing civil services, such as proper sanitation.

In modern times, public policy has evolved into an academic and professional field, for which a number of advanced degrees are available. Those who study public policy issues at the graduate level may earn masters and doctorate degrees in the field. They can then go on to a number of different careers. There is also a professional association for those in public policy, known as the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management.

Public policy issues may focus on graduation rates.
Public policy issues may focus on graduation rates.

Public policy issues are not simply the domain of publicly elected officials. As more money and other resources are devoted to public spending, so-called special interests — which range from non-profit charities to groups in the private sector — lobby lawmakers to pass legislation beneficial to their causes. Other lobbyists also exist to try to curb public spending and lower taxes.

Public policies may focus on health issues.
Public policies may focus on health issues.

With the proliferation of the Internet and its various forms of instant communication, involvement in public policy issues has become ever more democratized. Concerned citizens may access many of the same data sources as legislators and lobbyists, and build grassroots movements for or against any issue about which they feel strongly. Where once the debate over public policy was restricted only to the ruling class, it is now possible for virtually anyone with an opinion to weigh in and help shape the result.

Public policies deal with access to needed health care.
Public policies deal with access to needed health care.

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Discussion Comments


Fire protection is typically is the second highest expense in a municipality's general fund. While fire suppression remains a fire department's core service, over 80 percent of the time is spent on medical calls. One consequence is that more policy makers and citizens alike are pushing for downsizing, which leaves the public more vulnerable to life and property loss.

There is a cost-effective solution that is slowly gaining traction. More cities are using full-time temporary firefighters who are college students who receive free or subsidized educations for their service. Cities can pay tuition and expenses for two college students for the cost of one firefighter. In addition, the college students do not increase the pension burden, another issue that is in the news these days.


Yes, environmental issues are of interest to public policy but I personally don't think that it's being taken as seriously as it should. After a recent oil spill disaster, which actually happens quite often around our shores, I wish we would take more solid steps about pollution.

In 'environmental issues' I would also include wildlife protection, hunting laws and protection of endangered species. Of course most of these issues are up to individual states, but I believe more can be done nation-wide to encourage protection of animals, rare species and our environment in general.

What are some public policy issues which have been around for a while that you think not enough is being done about?


I also did my masters in public policy. I completely agree that public policy is important to everyone, no matter which sector they are in.

I'm currently working for a US government contractor and before I got this job, I had been unemployed for several years. If Congress hadn't decided to contract out to private companies more, I might have still been unemployed right now.

But this has also become a public policy issue, whether government should continue to contract out so much. I think at this point, there is no other choice because the US government is just spread out too thin with Iraq and Afghanistan.

But when we pull back from there and so many private contractors and subcontractors are no longer needed, the government might pull back which means people like me will lose their job.

We don't know what's going to happen, just waiting to see. But I know that this public policy issue is going to have a huge impact on unemployment rates and the US economy in general. And even when these special circumstances and needs are not there, US government contracting is probably always going to be open to discussion.


I think that one of the most important public policy issues since 2009 has been national security and privacy.

The US government has implemented various new policies to provide greater protection from terrorism and other national security threats in the last decade or so. But some of these policies have also embarked on privacy rights.

How much of our privacy rights we should forego for more national security has become a very contentious issue and there are good arguments on both sides. I often find myself agreeing with both and I think many Americans do as well. That's why this issue is probably going to be around for a long time to come.


I recently completed a master's degree in public policy so I can tell you first hand what a complicated issue this is. I have looked at countless case studies which present examples of effective and ineffective public policy, and I'm sorry to say that more often than not it is ineffective.

This is because the consequences are so hard to predict. Public policy creates lots of complicated cause and effect relationships. A piece of legislation designed to address one area of public life might have effects in an area no one could have foreseen. It is incumbent on lawmakers to study and debate the merits of any new legislation thoroughly before they sign it into law.


There have been a number of broad issues for debate in American public policy, but in a more specific way public policy issues will vary widely depending on the place where they are applied.

For instance, take an issue like land use. Public policy makers have to balance the interests of private citizens, businesses, and the environment. This will manifest itself differently in Phoenix Arizona than in will in the everglades of Florida. Land use will always be one of the top public policy issues, but lawmakers will have to respond to the unique circumstances of their constituency.

This is one of the most important lessons for lawmakers to learn. Few rules are universal. You have to understand specific contexts if you are going to legislate effectively.

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