Monday, March 17, 2008

Policies all round – the Daily Telegraph on the “regulatory thicket”

The Daily Telegraph website carries an anguished article by Charles Moore about the regulatory burden of “policies” on civil society.

Moore writes:

A "policy", you must understand, is not a simple thing any more. It is not just a statement like: "We aim to provide residential care for the elderly" or "We try to cure children with spinal injuries" (or whatever). Nor is it just a statement of specific rules such as "No alcohol may be consumed on the premises" or "Pupils need not wear school uniform in the sixth form".

No, a policy has to be a lengthy document on anything that the Government thinks important. It must set out aims, procedures, targets, monitoring, assessment, evaluation and so on. Depending slightly on what sort of organisation you are, you must have policies on health and safety, access, disability, recruitment, transparency, energy efficiency, environmental health, etc, etc.

I share some of this frustration. (I’ve blogged on “over-policying” before.) However, I do not share Moore’s ideological diagnosis:

The "speech community" of the post-1960s Left has gained almost complete power and influence over the administration of government. Its concepts, its way of putting things, now have the force of law. It is producing the slow death of free institutions in this country.

Neverthless, the proliferation of policies like a triffid in public services is a threat. Public and third sector organisations need to adopt a sensible approach – streamlining things where possible by combining some policies and relegating some to “procedures” outside the remit of board governance. Sometimes they need to have confidence and stand up to regulators when the so-called “good practice” of having a particular policy will get in the way of effectiveness. Above all there is a need to focus on improving outcomes rather than being in thrall to process. (Too many action plans can be just as much a distraction as too many policies.)

I would also suggest that organisations look at the Policy Governance model of the American organisation guru John Carver which focuses on policies as central to the role of boards in governing organisations. In this model:

Policies are written statements that are designed to provide that framework of values and perspectives and thus guide further decisions. They set up rules, defining what is to be accomplished and what should not occur. The policies are embodiments of the values and perspectives of the greater authority that the board stands in to represent. If policies direct all further decisions, then the best place for leadership is in the development of policy.

It sounds like common sense but many organisations struggle with this and end up micro-managing (often encouraged and/or coerced by the regulatory pressures discussed by Moore).

1 comment:

ryderman said...

I am in complete agreement with you on over-policying, which seems to be a hallmark of the current administration. As you say, many so-called "policies" are either standard procedures or strategies for achieving the organisation's objectives. It is instructive to compare the public and private sector views of "policy". A typical company - even a large one - will have relatively few "policies" of their own. Sure, they have procedures that implement regulations in matters such as Health and Safety and Employment, but the only "policy" is to comply with such regulations. They have financial targets expressed in terms such as revenue, profitability and earnings-per-share, and they have strategies to achieve these targets. But "policy" has no part to play in that. The public service culture makes it only too easy for those in public administration to see the production of detailed "policy documents" as an important activity - but the danger is that this diverts effort from achieving operational objectives such as improving customere service.