The policy process contains four sequential stages: (1) agenda setting, (2) policy enactment, (3) policy implementation, and (4) evaluation. Given the sheer number of issues already processed by the government, called the continuing agenda, and the large number of new proposals being pushed at any one time, it is typically quite difficult to move a new policy all the way through the process.

Agenda setting is the crucial first stage of the public policy process. Agenda setting has two subphases: problem identification and alternative specification. Problem identification identifies the issues that merit discussion. Not all issues make it onto the governmental agenda because there is only so much attention that government can pay. Thus, one of the more important tasks for a policy advocate is to frame his or her issue in a compelling way that raises a persuasive dimension or critical need.Bryan D. Jones and Frank R. Baumgartner. 2005. The Politics of Attention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For example, health care reform has been attempted on many occasions over the years. One key to making the topic salient has been to frame it in terms of health care access, highlighting the percentage of people who do not have health insurance.

Alternative specification, the second subphase of agenda setting, considers solutions to fix the difficulty raised in problem identification. For example, government officials may agree in the problem subphase that the increase in childhood obesity presents a societal problem worthy of government attention. However, the solution can be complex, and people who otherwise agree might come into conflict over what the best answer is. Alternatives might range from reinvestment in school physical education programs and health education classes, to taking soda and candy machines out of the schools and requiring good nutrition in school lunches. Agenda setting ends when a given problem has been selected, a solution has been paired with that problem, and the solution goes to the decision makers for a vote. Acid rain provides another nice illustration of agenda setting and the problems and solutions subphases. Acid rain is a widely recognized problem that did not make it on to the governmental policy agenda until Congress passed the Air Quality Act of 1967, long after environmental groups started asking for laws to regulate pollution.

In the second policy phase, enactment, the elected branches of government typically consider one specific solution to a problem and decide whether to pass it. This stage is the most visible one and usually garners the most press coverage. And yet it is somewhat anticlimatic. By the time a specific policy proposal (a solution) comes out of agenda setting for a yes/no vote, it can be something of a foregone conclusion that it will pass.

Once the policy has been enacted—usually by the legislative and/or executive branches of the government, like Congress or the president at the national level or the legislature or governor of a state—government agencies do the work of actually implementing it. On a national level, policy implementation can be either top-down or bottom-up. In top-down implementation, the federal government dictates the specifics of the policy, and each state implements it the same exact way. In bottom-up implementation, the federal government allows local areas some flexibility to meet their specific challenges and needs.Daniel Mazmanian and Paul Sabatier. 1989. Implementation and Public Policy. Washington, DC: Rowman and Littlefield.

Evaluation, the last stage of the process, should be tied directly to the policy’s desired outcomes. Evaluation essentially asks, “How well did this policy do what we designed it to do?” The answers can sometimes be surprising. In one hotly debated case, the United States funded abstinence-only sex education for teens with the goal of reducing teen pregnancy. A 2011 study published in the journal PLoS One, however, found that abstinence-only education actually increased teen pregnancy rates.Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall and David W. Hall. 2011. “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.,” PLoS One October 14, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/. The information from the evaluation stage can feed back into the other stages, informing future decisions and creating a public policy cycle.