Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back to policies

I wrote briefly about writing policies in February of this year.  Here I am again writing about the importance of writing your own - or at least being heavily involved in what gets written.

I have just written a conflict of interest policy and procedures for a voluntary organisation that I am working with.  There's nothing like actually writing a policy yourself.  Many people search the Internet and copy someone else's.  This has two major drawbacks - (1) you are assuming that it's a well-written document; (2) you are assuming that for each organisation the issues are the same.

In my experience of writing and researching policies and procedures there's a lot of copying and so a lot of very badly written documents.  People more often than not confuse policies with procedures - there are overlaps but there are also some clear dividing lines.  In fact most people's policies are procedures and there's no policy document at all or there's just one paragraph.  Policy documents are vital because they tell you what to take into account if you are dealing with something that hasn't been thought of and has no procedure.

Essentially policies are about why and the big issue whats - why has the policy been written, what principles and values of the organisation does this reflect, what are the issues that need addressing and what do we need to keep in mind when making decisions or carrying out actions.  Procedures are about how - how is the policy to be implemented - and this then brings in when, where, who and the specific whats.  Who does what (specific thing), when and where.  

It is certainly worth looking at other people's polices and procedures and seeing what they have covered.  It is also useful to critique these - to help you to understand what a good policy and procedure may look like.  Because I do this for a living I have a fairly standard format which separates the policy from the procedures.  Having a standard format is helpful but you mustn't be bound by it - writing a policy on trustee behaviour may look quite different from one on computer-use health and safety.  

You need to think - 'Who will use these, how will they use them and what will make it easier for them to use?'.  You may want some appendices and just keep the basics in the main documents.  Appendices may contain information about the law on certain issues in more depth than in the main document, for example equality issues.  Or they may contain some guidelines from a good practice document.

You need to think of your specific situation, your organisation's values and the way that you actually do things.  As long as what you currently do is safe, legal and in line with your principles you would probably be best writing up what you actually do as your procedures.  When I write procedures I try to reflect what people have told me about what they do and then ask them to check carefully what I've written.  An external consultant should not be telling an organisation how they do business - we can inform and advise - but ultimately it is the trustees of the organisation who need to assert how they will do things and how they will ensure that those things are actually done.

Like anything it becomes easier with practice but if you always copy someone else's you won't get much practice.  It is important that organisations have some policies and procedures but they need to be good quality, fit for purpose and owned by everyone within the organisation.  It is better to have a few good quality policies and procedures than a full set of someone else's that no-one has read let alone implemented.

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