Policy Processing


To me, the intrigue of developing policy (for both internal and external application) lies in two areas.

Firstly, in the opportunity to use your imagination to find a new, exciting, better way of doing things – obviously within limits. You have goals you are trying to reach and you have restraints in terms of practicalities, resources and possibly history or politics so this can be a good opportunity for some creative thinking.

Secondly, in the management of stakeholders – a fun or dreaded challenge, depending on your personality type. In contentious issues, the biggest challenge can be getting all interested parties on the same wavelength and reaching agreement (or at least agreed compromise). These are the zones where the creative side of the brain can be given chance to play.

It is interesting though how often the policy development process itself is where all the creative effort is invested. I would argue (and as always, I would love to hear some other opinions on this!) that this is not the best use of our intellectual resources.

At a high level, policy development is a process. Obviously it may need to be tailored for a particular schedule or the extent of consultation required, but the same general steps are needed in any true policy development ‘project’. This is where I could run into terminology problems and the oxymoron of a project having a process or a process being a project… I’m going to side-step that issue today though and keep mulling over it, because I’m not quite ready to say that I disagree with that tenet yet.

The ‘Australian Policy Handbook’ (Althaus, Bridgman and Davis 2007*) is my starting point for this. For the public service it is a document of royal proportions. It sets out the following elements which I have adapted into process speak and a flow chart in the diagram below.

Policy Development Process

Unfortunately – I will admit – it can rarely be this clearcut in practice and in particular steps 1, 4 and 5 need to be ongoing throughout the life of the policy development process. At the same time, to follow this process verbatim and to a minute degree might be a bit of overkill in some circumstances. Althaus, Bridgman and Davis make the point within their book that these elements are elements only and not a fixed process.

However I think it is useful to apply this as a standard benchmark process for government policy development. If you are planning a policy development project, steps 1 to 5 are your high level project phases. These are constant across any policy making project, so can be used to easily compare and evaluate the processes of different policy development projects. These process steps can be used as a starting point for any organisation seeking to standardise and improve their policy making processes. Without some attempt at classifying policy development activities, it would make it very difficult to pinpoint efficiency savings or activity improvements – such as the composition of reference groups / governance committees to best assist the consultation stage; maintaining a library of policy options or decisions; or leveraging good policy work done in different areas of an organisation.

For government departments – as we saw in the government departmental value chain last week – the policy development process for external-facing application is critical. Policy development is one of the few key activities that drives the creation of value by the public sector, and it spans across the primary business areas, laying its tentacles in each theme of government administration. It has historically been hard to quantify and hard to pin down about required resources, efficiencies and success. And yet it is a core process which is able to standardised to a certain extent.

But policy – by government, the private sector and not-for-profit organisations – is also developed for internal use, and to underpin all other primary and supporting operations.

However, what I was planning on exploring today was not how you develop policy, but what a policy document may look like, and specifically one for internal application. If we go back to my definition of policy from several months ago, “business policies are statements of an organisation’s expectations that guide the behaviour of an organisation’s staff and volunteers.”

So what should a ‘policy’ per se look like?

Once again, I like the idea of cutting straight to the crux of it and making a policy document about the policy. That’s the beauty of documenting the different views of business operations in an integrated framework like in this model. You don’t need to make one document fit for too many purposes and audiences by covering topics such as ‘background’ or ‘process’, because that information is provided by other artefacts. Therefore, when someone goes to a policy document, they get the policy without needing to wade through other information.

You’re still evading the question! What is ‘the policy’?

The policy is the statement / set of statements that provides guidance to someone about how to behave. This is ideally as concisely as possible, but does not necessarily need to provide an indication of what level of compliance is required. For example, a policy does not say “The policy officer must lodge a cabinet submission to the executive officer within 14 days of final stakeholder consent.” A statement of policy would be more along the lines of “policy officers should seek the approval of cabinet soon after the end of the consultation period.”

I think of policy as the link between principles (which are very high level principles of behaviour) and business rules (which may show up in legislation or other regulatory instruments). They provide the gist of / guidance for how the principles apply to a certain business area or task, without pinning down exact requirements. In a policy document for a certain subject, these general statements of intent and guidance are the very crux of what its readers are looking for.

But how do you get to the crux? Well, that’s what I was saying – and this week’s bugbear. There is a process for policy development which can help you out, and step 2 is the fun bit!

What do you think?

Can you apply a standardised process to the policy development process? And do you think a ‘policy’ is a statement of guidance, or a set of statements of guidance?

* Althaus, C, Bridgman, P and Davis, G 2007, The Australian Policy Handbook, 4th edn, Allen and Unwin.

What do you think?