What Is the Difference Between Law, Policy, and Regulation, According to 7 Experts

Laws, policies, and regulations are needed in our society as they help in sustaining order and in shaping the social and political aspects of society.

Though they can be interrelated, they definitely serve different purposes.

So, what is the difference between laws, policies, and regulations? We asked experts to share their insights.

Alyssa Lee, Psy.D.

Alyssa Lee

Clinical Psychologist | Public Policy Research & Development Director, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities

Understanding the difference between law, policy and regulations are essential in our journey to becoming truly civic-minded. Although many might confound these topics, they are actually quite unique, and each comes with effective advocacy strategies that we as citizens can utilize so that we stay engaged in the process.

Policy ideas are often the starting place for the law

Beginning with an overview of policy is a good place to start because policy can often precede law. Policies are found everywhere we go, whether it be the statehouse, work or the gym.

They are typically informed by how people would like to see the space defined. They are often aspirational in nature and do not typically have legal implications if they are not followed.

As citizens, we can all look around and see areas in our environment that we would like improved by a policy. If we want to create mandates for the policy to be followed, and implications if the policy is not followed, we can work with our district representatives and senators to draft bill language that can begin the process of transforming policy into law.

Law is a policy written into legal language and passed by our elected officials

We can consider a law to have more teeth. We have laws at every level of government – local, state and federal.

As citizens, we can engage in the lawmaking process every step of the way by making sure our elected officials know where we stand on a particular issue. Grassroots advocates have often been known to influence the final outcome of law.

Once a law has been passed, implementation of the law is the next step. Although many brilliant minds, including advocates, came together to create a law with the best intentions, actually implementing the law affects how communities will feel the effects of said law.

A regulation is a rule within a law that specifies how the ideas of the law are actually going to be implemented

Regulations are vital to the implementation of the law. Regulations can be modified over time, and governments are often required to seek feedback from citizens through a public comment period. These opportunities provide us all with a chance to continue having an impact on how the law is implemented in our organizations and communities.

Although we might think our work is done once the law is passed, we have a tremendous responsibility to remain engaged with regulations and implementation.

Grasping the intricacies of policies, laws, and regulations can be complex, but imagining them as a tree can be helpful.

Think of policy as the seed we plant, an idea that we have envisioned to improve our surroundings. The seed is planted and out of that seed grows the trunk of the tree, a law with a firm foundation. Finally, from the law, we get branches of regulations that reach out into the community and assist with the growth of leaves or community improvements in our tree scenario.

Watering that tree and helping it grow and thrive can be considered an essential part of our civic duties.

Nicholas Marouchak

Nicholas Marouchak

Senior Lawyer | Co-Founder and Director, MKI Legal and Perth Employment Lawyers

Law, policy, and regulations are terms commonly used interchangeably and even considered as synonymous words to each other. This is the reason why it is always confusing to differentiate these terms due to the thin line of difference between their meanings.

Laws are directive which was outlined, drafted and directed by highly authorized personalities, the legislative body

This is absolute and fixed and cannot be changed instantly not unless the body will amend that existing law provided that it will bring more unity, order, and benefit to the majority. However, this process is long and tedious.

Policies are drafted and created by an organization to help the members achieve their goals

This can be seen in companies, groups, organizations or even in government agencies to bring to completion whatever their plans are. Unlike law, policies are flexible.

Regulations are a set of rules created to make people comply

These are restrictions set by those people in authority to encourage people to follow the desired code of conduct. Like law, this is fixed.

It is of high importance to note that these three terms, while seemingly the same, should not be used interchangeably.

Sophie Lübeck

Sophie Lübeck

Quality and Legal Associate, Ofri

Laws go through the bill process before becoming established and they are democratically accepted by a state

Laws constitute the absolute minimum of behavioral rules that must in all cases be followed. Laws apply to everyone that the legislative body that adopted them has legislation over.

Laws are supposed to govern in a general and abstract way, meaning that everybody in any possible case is regulated. This element of a multitude of cases results in laws being hard to read because the language that has to be used is not specific enough.

Regulations govern whoever deals with the agency enforcing them

Regulations also go through a public adoption process and thus also enjoy the force of law, however, the circle of addressees narrows down to whoever deals directly with the governmental agency that is enforcing such regulations.

Regulations aim to enact more in-depth rules in comparison to laws, that give more detailed answers to questions one might have and thus a state in a much clearer way how one shall behave. This is possible, because these agencies have better access to experts on the field, as those agencies usually only adopt regulations within their own scope of the industry.

Policies can be made by individual governmental institutions, as well as private bodies such as companies

They are enforced to ensure the achievement of internal aims and goals. They apply to everyone within the organization.

Policies constitute the highest level of behavioral control, aimed at increasing quality standards within an organization, address and lower issues such as gender and race/ethnicity conflicts, as well as contribute to a generally better work environment and professionality.

Paul Engel

Paul Engel

Author | Speaker | Founder, The Constitution Study

Much of the confusion about law, regulation, and policies, especially at the federal level, comes from a lack of understanding of the Constitution and the government it created.

Laws are the outcome of the legislative process

Anything that is given the force of law that does not go through the legislative process is a violation of the Constitution, which gives all legislative power (the power to enact laws) to Congress. Put another way, they are legislation without representation.

Regulations come from Congress illegally delegating their lawmaking powers to the executive branch

(The Constitution does not give Congress the authority to delegate its powers.) These regulations are given the force of law by allowing the executive and judicial branches to enforce them with criminal and civil punishments.

We see this also in what is erroneously referred to as “case law” or “constitutional law”. Both “case law” and “constitutional law” are not laws but the opinions of judges. They did not go through the legislative process, they were not debated by the representatives of the people and the states.

They are the power play of an oligarchy in the judicial branch of government. Sadly, they are also given the force of law by the executive branch because they do not understand the separation of powers created by the Constitution.

The policy is an overall plan

For example, President Obama had the policy to enact health insurance reform. His plan consisted of ideas and objectives but was not enforceable until they were enacted into law with the Affordable Care Act.

Donald E. Petersen

Donald E. Petersen

Florida Consumer Rights Lawyer | Founder, TCPA Blog

Law is a rule passed by the legislature and signed into law (or not effectively vetoed) by the executive branch

At the federal level, statutes are codified in the United States Code.

A regulation is a rule promulgated by the agency which is responsible for enforcing the regulation

At the federal level, regulations are published for public comment in the Federal Register and published in the Code of Federal Regulations.

The methods and goals embodied which motivated the legislature to enact a statute (or law) are often referred to as “congressional purpose” or “legislative intent”. The framing of the regulations and enforcement of the laws and regulations can either further, throttle, or even thwart the stated purpose of the statute. Courts can derail the underlying policy of a statute too.

Regulatory capture remains an obstacle for people who advocate a policy even if they successfully lobby for the passage of a new law.

For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gained considerable attention as a mechanism for protecting consumers from predatory lenders and debt collection harassment. After the change in presidential administrations, the CFPB dropped many of its enforcement actions and is now toothless.

Even worse, the CFPB is promulgating regulations that will allow debt collectors to call consumers with frequencies which the courts often find constitute “harassment” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”) — a law which the CFPB is responsible for enforcing. Moreover, the CFPA proposes to allow debt collectors to send an unlimited number of SMS text messages and emails.

Another example of regulatory capture is the federal bank regulatory agencies. The regulators allowed federally insured financial institutions to engage in reckless lending practices which exposed them to the credit bubble caused by the unregulated credit default swap markets which lead to the credit implosion of 2008.

Sometimes, Congressional purpose is difficult to ascertain because the statutory language is vague (or even silent on an issue). The judicial doctrine of “judicial restraint” says If the statute is clear, the courts should not consult the legislative history or otherwise attempt to identify the purpose of the statute.

But, ambiguity lies in the eyes of the judges and the judicial opinions are littered with opinions which amount to judicial activism by increasingly aggressive conservative judges at both the federal and state levels.

Paymon Barati-Darmian

Paymon Barati-Darmian

Attorney-at-Law | Founder, Chosen Lawyers

  • In the United States, the term Law is referred to any edict, directive, decree that is declared by a Governmental Body for the purpose of regulating behaviors.
    The Law is predominantly enforced by governmental agents and adjudicated by the court system, which imposes criminal punishment or civil liability upon violators. The legislating governmental body could be Federal, State, Municipal or a Judge under the “Stare Decisis” system; and it means “to stand by things decided.”
  • A policy is a sort of a guidepost, which defines an intent to achieve an objective based on a set of procedures. Policies are generally adopted by a governmental agency. Although private companies may also adopt policies to achieve certain objectives. The main difference between policy and law is that law can compel or prohibit behaviors, while policy merely guides actions toward those that are most likely to achieve the desired outcome.
  • Regulations are rules made by a government or other authority in order to control the way something is done or the way people behave.

Michael S. O’Brien

Michael S. O'Brien

Founder & Principal, MOB Advocacy

The difference between law, policy, and regulation is generally the authority or the overseer.

The policy is the lowest authority, as it usually doesn’t have the force of law.

It might be the policy of an administration not to negotiate with terrorists, but there are no legal grounds for that. Laws and Regulations are a bit more complicated. It is best to think of legislation as big-picture thinking and regulations more where the legal rubber hits the road.

Laws are passed by a legislative body and regulations are codified actions of administrative agencies, and have the force of law.

Often times legislation is the guideline and authorization for regulatory action. So, the legislation is an overall idea, and the regulation will then dig deeper and put some muscle on the bones. It might more clearly define legislation, it might outline what is required for compliance and enforcement.

This is generally the same at the state level as it is at the Federal level, though states have varying degrees of regulatory authority. Some states require that the legislature (in some form, usually a committee) approves all regulatory changes. Some states that duty lies with the governor’s office.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can policies be updated, and who is responsible?

Policies can be changed or updated through a review process initiated by the organization or government responsible for the policy. This may involve gathering stakeholder feedback, evaluating the policy’s effectiveness, and identifying improvement areas.

Policy changes can be triggered by factors such as shifts in public opinion, new evidence or research, changes in leadership, or the need to adapt to new challenges.

Ultimately, the organization or government responsible for the policy ensures it remains relevant, effective, and aligned with its goals and values.

How do regulations evolve, and what factors influence these changes?

Regulations evolve over time to meet new challenges, accommodate advancements in knowledge or technology, and ensure continued compliance with underlying laws.

Factors affecting regulatory changes include public opinion, changes in legislation, industry developments, and scientific discoveries. Regulatory bodies are responsible for regularly reviewing and updating regulations to maintain effectiveness and relevance.

This process may include public consultations, impact assessments, and engagement with relevant stakeholders to ensure that updated regulations are practical, enforceable, and beneficial to society.

How do international laws, policies, and regulations affect domestic ones?

International laws, policies, and regulations can have a significant impact on domestic ones, particularly when it comes to issues that cross national borders or require international cooperation.

Countries may adopt or adapt international laws, policies, and regulations to ensure compatibility with their domestic legal frameworks and meet their international obligations.

This may mean incorporating international standards into domestic legislation or creating new policies and regulations to align with global goals and commitments.

In addition, international organizations and treaties may also establish frameworks that influence or shape domestic laws, policies, and regulations in various areas such as trade, human rights, and environmental protection.

What role do ethical considerations play in creating and enforcing laws, policies, and regulations?

Ethical considerations are vital in creating and enforcing laws, policies, and regulations. These considerations help ensure that society’s rules are based on principles of justice, fairness, and respect for human rights.

Lawmakers and policymakers are responsible for weighing the potential ethical implications of their decisions, balancing the interests of different stakeholders, and resolving potential conflicts of interest.

Ethical considerations may also inform the enforcement of laws and regulations, leading authorities to prioritize the most significant violations or to exercise discretion and leniency in some instances, depending on the circumstances and potential harm.

How can transparency and accountability be maintained in developing and enforcing laws, policies, and regulations?

Maintaining transparency and accountability in the development and enforcement of laws, policies, and regulations is critical to promoting trust in public institutions and ensuring that these rules are fair, effective, and responsive to society’s needs.

Key measures to promote transparency and accountability include open and inclusive decision-making processes, public consultations, clear communication of the rationale and objectives of laws, policies, and regulations, and regular reporting on their implementation and outcomes.

In addition, independent oversight bodies such as auditors, inspectors, and regulators can help monitor compliance, investigate potential abuses or misconduct, and recommend corrective actions or improvements to enhance transparency and accountability.

How can laws, policies, and regulations be adapted to emerging technologies and evolving societal needs?

Laws, policies, and regulations must adapt to emerging technologies and evolving societal needs to remain effective and relevant in a rapidly changing world. This can be achieved through a proactive and collaborative approach involving lawmakers, policymakers, industry experts, and other stakeholders.

By closely monitoring technological advancements and their potential impact on society, decision-makers can identify areas where new rules or changes are needed to address challenges or seize opportunities.

In addition, incorporating flexibility and adaptability into legal and regulatory frameworks can help them be more easily updated as new developments occur.

Fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation within regulatory bodies can also encourage the exploration of novel approaches and solutions to emerging challenges.

How can individuals and organizations stay informed about relevant laws, policies, and regulations?

Staying informed about laws, policies, and regulations is essential for compliance and understanding the responsibilities and requirements that apply to individuals and organizations.

Some ways to stay informed include monitoring government websites or official publications, subscribing to relevant newsletters or industry publications, participating in professional associations, and consulting with legal or regulatory experts when necessary.

In addition, continuing education and training can help individuals and organizations stay up to date with the latest developments in their field and ensure compliance with applicable rules and standards.

How can the private sector influence laws, policies, and regulations?

The private sector, including companies and industry associations, can have a significant impact on the development and implementation of laws, policies, and regulations.

Businesses and industry associations often engage in lobbying, advocacy, and public relations efforts to advance their interests and influence decision-making processes. These efforts can help shape the legislative agenda, inform policy, and contribute to developing regulations that consider practical implications for businesses and industries.

In addition, the private sector can promote self-regulation and voluntary standards that complement or supplement existing legal and regulatory frameworks to demonstrate its commitment to responsible business practices and contribute to a more effective governance ecosystem.

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