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Public Policy 101: Understanding Policy

It is important for the public to understand how to understand policy, especially when it is in the process of being deliberated and adopted. As a policymaker, I want to share some of the finer points of policy making, especially into today political climate.
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My views do not represent the City of Los Angeles or the Department of City Planning.

Every year, a large number of policies are deliberated at all levels of government. Some are passed, some are postponed, some are dead upon arrival.

In a democratic government, almost all of these policies are heard in some form or another by the public. However, there are a lot of nuances to understanding them and because the public are not generally versed in understanding policy, there are ways to get policies passed by influencing public sentiment or despite public sentiment.

To make it easier for you to understand policies, especially those you care about, the following are three important things to look for to avoid supporting a policy on misguided assumptions. They are listed in order of complexity:

1. Intent

Policies come with a statement of intent, usually stated in its project description, its summary, or its text. Often, they are accompanied by a report that further explicates the need, the background, and the proposed solutions of the policy. Some policies come with extensive marketing and public communications as well; this is particularly true in ballot initiatives.

Like any good marketing campaigns and public communications, however, what I just described can be misleading if not completely untrue. You see this often in the media or marketing campaigns, where they latch onto the stated intents or singular parts of the policy and promote them without actually explaining how the policy sets out to achieve its stated goals. The true intent of the policy is usually not found the aforementioned documents but rather in the whole of the text – how does the policy propose to achieve what it set out to do?

What you, the public, need to do is to understand how each component work with one another and how the components correlate with the state goals.

For example, if a policy is proposing to encourage development by removing development standards and restrictions, you need to ask what the exceptions are, or in other words what kind of projects do not get the proposed relief from standards and restrictions, and if there is a corresponding tightening of standards in other parts of the policy. If the exceptions affect the majority of the city (or the particular geographic distinction) or there is tightening of standards, then what you have on your hands is not a policy that promotes development, but rather one that restricts it.

2. Definitions

Definitions can be used to shape public perception. Within a policy, there are typically a number of terms and words that need definition. Most of the time, the definitions are details at the beginning or end of the policy. Sometimes, the definitions are within the text linking to existing laws. These definitions are usually key to understanding what the policy is proposing, especially ones linking to existing laws. What you think a term might mean might actually be defined very differently within the policy.

Sometimes, a term is important but not defined. In those instances, it can become problematic and usually you need to rely on a memorandum or a report by the responsible agency.

Other times, a term is defined elsewhere but redefined specifically within the proposed policy. The differences between the definitions then becomes critical.

For example, California has clear definitions of Affordable Housing and the rent to be associated with different income levels. However, the City of Los Angeles has its own rent definitions. This has implications on the types of affordable housing that is being built in the city.

3. Assumptions

This might be stating the obvious, especially if you already read the text to parse out the intent and the definitions of a policy, but it cannot be overstated.

For many, figuring out the intent and the definitions will probably be enough to convince them to support or oppose a policy. For others, it is the understanding of the assumptions of the policy that is important. This usually requires background understanding of the current conditions.

Similar to any decision you make in your life, a policy is created based certain assumptions. One of the biggest problems I see with people’s support or opposition of policies is the lack of understanding of their assumptions. People can hold assumptions that do not align with a policy’s, which can lead to a misunderstanding or a certain perception of a policy. Marketing campaigns for policies tend to take advantage of these assumptions, perceived or otherwise. What you need to understand is what the proposed policy takes into account and what the proposed policy disregards.

For example, a policy may make assumptions that requiring affordable housing necessitates a certain amount of incentives to developers, otherwise it is not economically feasible. Yet, the public might assume that the government is catering to the interests of the developers without understanding that because of certain existing laws, this is the one of the only ways to impose affordability requirements. So instead of picking a battle with the existing law, the public picks a battle with the proposed policy.

 

In today’s climate, it becomes ever more important to be engaged with the public process. There’s a wealth of information out there; some are credible, some are not. It becomes important to learn how to cut through the noise. I hope with this quick guide you will find it easier to engaged in the public discourse and with public policies.

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