Round table discussion over public policyCredit: Photo Credit: Ken BrownCredit: Photo Credit: Ken Brown

Policy evaluation is one of the last two stages in the policy process and is a very important step as it can be influential on the future of the policy being evaluated.  The goal of a policy evaluation is to assess if the enacted policy program is working with efficiency, achieving its established goals and objectives, and if it is reaching its target audience (Kraft and Furlong, 2010).  Aside from assessing the programs outcomes, an evaluation is also important in determining if the policy is still legitimately needed, providing an action where the benefits are outweighed by the costs.  Additional factors that are assessed and reviewed are spillover effects and unintended consequences that may be stemming from the implemented policy.  Positive spillover effects are much easier to consider than negative ones where the policy may be inadvertently affecting groups, situations, or environments beyond the scope of the target audience.  Another major factor evaluated in an assessment is if the policy results are worth the amount of expended money, which is actually considered to be a question that lies at the heart of policy analysis (Kraft and Furlong, 2010). If a policy is found to have high costs with low benefits or if the policy is no longer considered to fill a legitimate need, then there is a strong potential the evaluation could influence future changes or termination of the program.

Policy evaluations are carried out in while considering a variety of different aspects such as cost-benefit analysis, political importance, positive/negative public support and criticism from opponents to the policy. Three primary methods of evaluation are used for assessing a policy 1. Experimental Design Method, 2. Quasi-Experimental Study and 3. a Before and After Study.  Additionally, policy outcomes and outputs are important not only to the American public, but also policymakers responsible for their formation and all other policy actors involved, which results in informal evaluations which occur on a continual basis by members of Congress, interest groups, think tanks, and scholars among others (Kraft and Furlong, 2010). Based on the presentation of findings in an evaluation, a policy can be determined as successful and not in need of change, in need of reform, more expensive than estimated requiring potential future changes, or in effective and in need of termination. 

There are several problems that need to be recognized with the evaluations that are done by government agencies and other entities. Typically, a government agency which is responsible for the implementation of a particular policy will focus more on their outputs instead of the actual policy outcomes (i.e. the Endangered Species Act announcing an output on the listing of several new species for protection instead of announcing an outcome of only 21 species out of 1,375 having successfully been removed since policy implementation). By focusing on the outputs the general public, politicians, and supporting interest groups receive the biased illusion that the policy is progressing forward with success. Other entities, such as think tanks, organized interest groups, private research organizations, and politically established committees, among others, will also likely produce evaluations which are biased in favor of their position toward the evaluated policy. For example, Republicans are currently working to evaluate and show that the 2009 Recovery Act is indeed a failure while Democrats are working to show the policy is effective with successful results. As a result, a lot of government evaluations may be considered as biased or flawed, lacking influence or reliable truths that the voting public can rely upon.

Despite the importance of policy evaluations, it is still uncommon to see policy change, and even more rare to see a policy terminated, even if it has been show the policy is ineffective or unnecessary.  There are several reasons which prevent the alteration or termination of an established policy.  One primary reason for this is bureaucratic resistance. Those who have voted for and invested time and money in policy do not want it to end or significantly change as it may result in economic losses or show political actors as backing a bad policy.  Additionally, if a policy were wiped out or even significantly reduced there is a high potential for hundreds of jobs to be lost as evidenced when President Obama announced his plan to significantly reduce the space exploration program, which effectively threatening thousands of jobs for private contractors in the defense industry from industry giants like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.  It is very improbable to see elected officials voting for the termination of a policy that would cost American jobs as they rely on the voting public to keep them in office. Another reason policies are rarely terminated is policymakers are very reluctant to admit failure as this would also negatively impact their potential for re-election. As an end result, most policy programs are altered rather than terminated.

References Cited:

Kraft, Michael E. and Scott R. Furlong Public Policy: Politics, Analysis & Alternative, 3rd ed. Green Bay, Wisconsin. CQ Press, 2010.