Public policy theory is the study or discussion of public policy. Public policy itself includes any policies that are concerned with the public, at the federal, state, or local government level. This field of study involves observing, analyzing, and often comparing actual public policy to theory, as opposed to actually participating in the creation of the policy. Because theory is not equal to knowledge or factual information, it is an imperfect study often involving debate and sometimes controversy.
This type of study is often designed for and built into college courses designed for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. The number of courses, as well as the availability, truly depends upon the institution or university. Some universities have a limited number of public policy courses, whereas others have entire departments dedicated to the subject.
Students who are pursuing a degree in political science, government, international relations, public administration, or public policy are almost always required to enroll in and pass a public policy theory course. Other areas of study that either require or would benefit from a solid understanding of this topic include law studies, economics, and social science. A background in history and an understanding of the respective local or national political system is helpful prior to enrolling in a theory course.
Some of the areas that might be covered in a course include historical theories, as well as more recent theoretical concepts. Universities often break up public policy theory studies into time frames, giving students a closer look at the well-known thinkers of a particular time period. For example, early studies might focus on Machiavelli, Socrates, and Plato. Other courses might include theory and observations about public policy by more recent political scientists.
Career opportunities in public policy are numerous. A doctoral degree in a similar discipline, as well as experience in researching and publishing scholarly articles about the subject, would likely prepare a person to work as a professor in this field. Though a person does not necessarily need a background or education in the theory, it is helpful.
Public policy theory is often spoken about, but more often found in written form. Entire books, both school textbooks and those for the general population, are published on a yearly basis. Scholarly journals, such as the Journal of Public Administration, Research & Theory, provide researchers and professors an opportunity to be published and share their own theories about this important topic. Furthermore, there are websites dedicated to the discussion of public policy and the theories that support or disagree with the policies and laws that people live by.