What is public policy?

Public policy is a course of action or inaction chosen by public authorities to address a given problem or interrelated set of problems. 1

The policymaking process often involves a number of actors (community members, advocates, decision-makers, policy makers, etc), organizations and competing interests, and can take a great deal of time and energy before policy outcomes are realized. 2

What is healthy public policy and why is it important?

A healthy public policy is any policy (e.g., legislation, taxation, fiscal incentive, etc), which seeks to improve the health and wellness of the individuals, community or population that it impacts. 3

Healthy public policy is an efficient way to support the greatest number of people make positive changes in their lives. Rather than focusing on changing people’s behaviours one person at a time, effective healthy public policy creates supportive environments which enable people to lead healthier lives.

The Prevention Policies Directory indexes Canadian healthy public policies related to the prevention of cancer and chronic disease.

What is the policy process?

The implementation of public policy is the most visible and obvious part of the policy process; however, it is only one of several phases. In most models the policy development process includes the following five phases, as outlined in the diagram below:


The Prevention Policies Directory can assist the prevention policy community in accessing evidence on existing Canadian cancer and chronic disease prevention policies which can be used during the policy process as a source of evidence.

What is policy diffusion?

Policy diffusion is a key element in policy development. Policy diffusion is about the movement of a policy across jurisdictional boundaries. In diffusion, decision makers ‘learn’ policy solutions and/or draw on others’ experiences to evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of a public policy for their own jurisdiction. It can be more efficient for a jurisdiction to model themselves after others rather than to undertake the policy development cycle for each specific issue. 4

Several factors can influence the diffusion of policy, these include: 5

  • Geographic Proximity: Existence of a public policy in nearby cities or provinces/territories provides a model upon which officials can draw and can make the enactment of the policy more likely
  • Imitation: Diffusion may be driven by shared attributes of jurisdictions (e.g., political, ideological, demographic, cultural, or economic similarities)
  • Emulation: A policy may diffuse because officials view an existing successful version elsewhere and try to copy its success in their own jurisdiction. Emulation is driven by perceived success of a policy. Successful jurisdictions are more likely to be emulated, regardless of geographic proximity.
  • Competition: Policies may diffuse because officials believe the failure to adopt them will put their jurisdiction at a competitive disadvantage. There is an element of pressure to keep up with colleagues in other jurisdictions.

It has been observed that innovative policies may diffuse more rapidly through time and space.4

The Prevention Policies Directory facilitates policy diffusion by making it easier for the policy community to access and learn about existing policies in a variety of Canadian jurisdictions.

Related Resources:

For more information on healthy public policy and the policy development process, please visit:

1 Pal, L.A. (2009). Beyond policy analysis: Public issue management in turbulent times (2nd Ed.).Canada: Nelson Thomson Learning.
2 Sabatier, P.A. (2007). The Need for Better Theories. In P. Sabatier (Ed.), Theories of the Policy Process (pp.3-17). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
3 Kemm, J. (2009). Health Impact Assessment: A Tool for Healthy Public Policy. Health Promotion International, 16(1), 9-85.
4 Nykiforuk, C.I.J., Eyles, J., & Campell, H.S. (2008). Smoke-free spaces over time: A policy diffusion study of bylaw development in Alberta and Ontario, Canada. Health and Social Care in the Community. 16(1), 64-74.
5 Karch, A. (2007). Emerging issues and future directions in state policy diffusion research. State Politics and Policy Quarterly. 7(1), 54-80.


Last updated: November 8, 2013