The term ‘policy’ is used in so many ways that you can be forgiven for being a little confused about what it means. In general terms, ‘policy’ is used to describe a formal decision or plan of action adopted by an actor to achieve a particular goal (Richards and Smith 2002), however there are numerous types of policy and different types of actors engaged in policy work, so I thought it might be helpful to offer this brief survey, outlining some of the main uses of the term.
Public policy is recognised to be a system of “courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.”
When Governments use policy, they select from a range of regulatory, distributive, redistributive, and guidance instruments, some of which are described in the table below. Every aspect of Government activity is based on policies, initially outlined by a political party before an election, but also developed during their tenure in government, hence we often see media commentary about health, education, housing, defence, environmental and budgetary policy, amongst numerous others.
Governance policies are a core responsibility of an organisation’s governing body. They include: accountabilities, code of conduct, conflict of interest measures, decision-making delegations, governance values / methods, financial commitments, risk management, director development, roles and responsibilities, relationships with the CEO and staff, and with members and other stakeholders, along with other rules and guidelines intended to achieve good governance.
‘Carrots, Sticks and Sermons’
One of the most accessible policy classification systems I have come across is ‘carrots, sticks and sermons’. The table below is adapted from Bemelmans-Videc, M.-L., Rist, R.C. & Vedung, E. (Eds.) Carrots, sticks, and sermons: Policy instruments and their evaluation. Transaction, New Brunswick, pp. 21-58.
Other policy types
If public and governance policies were the only types we had to deal with there might be less confusion, however in associations, charities and other not-for-profit organisations we also use the term ‘policy’ in other ways, some of which are outlined below.
Professional policies / Position Statements which are approved by the governing body in the form of:
- guidance for members on best practices;
- guidance for the public on measures which benefit them; and/or
- policy positions advocated to government or other external agencies
Operational or administrative policies are usually drafted and overseen by the CEO (although the governing body will usually be involved in reviewing and advising on them). They apply to the administration and day-to-day management of the organisation, and include policies on complaints procedures, diversity, harassment, employment, HR and managing staff, amongst many others.
Insurance policies are formal contracts issued by an insurer that contain terms and conditions of the insurance cover (including what’s covered, what’s excluded and limits of cover) and serve as its legal evidence. These are used by organisations and individuals to transfer some of their risk to a third party.
Written and Unwritten policies
Just as you don’t have to have a written contract for a contractual relationship to exist, you don’t have to have a written policy to have a policy commitment. Your behaviour demonstrates your policy stance, and the values which underpin that stance.
You will occasionally hear people say “I make it a policy to …”, meaning they adopt a way of doing something which is standardised, and which is based on a considered rationale.
Another way an unwritten policy is expressed is via acquiescence. This was best summed up during the investigation into bullying and harassment in the Australian military, when Lieutenant General David Morrison stated: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.
It sometimes helps us to gain some sense of the scope of a word’s meaning to consider the various synonyms that might be used to convey similar meanings. The following list should therefore assist directors and management in recognising when they are dealing with a policy matter:
plans, strategy, principle, rule, proposed action, blueprint, approach, scheme, stratagem, programme, schedule, code, system, guidelines, intentions, notions, theory, line, position, stance, attitude
There is a vast literature about public policy and policy analysis, but directors and managers in not-for-profit organisations may not have the time (or inclination) to explore these usually academic texts. I hope this brief outline of the various ways the term ‘policy’ is used in our daily work is helpful, and would welcome feedback to enhance future versions.