You’ve been asked to develop or review a council policy. If there’s an existing policy in place, you’ve been given some insights into the aspects of it that haven’t been working particularly well.
But how, exactly, do you get started with this project? Here’s the process I used last week, which I hope will also be useful to you, if you are asked to draft or review a policy.
What type of policy is it?
The first step is to read the policy and any related procedures or guidelines related to it.
Meet with the manager (or client) to learn why they want to go ahead with this project. It is also really valuable to understand who the decision-makers are regarding the final policy, for example, do senior staff have the authority to approve changes, or will it need to be approved by councillors?
This question relates to whether it is an internal policy (related to the way things are done within a council) or whether it is an external policy. This isn’t always black and white. Some policies are obviously external ones — they are required by legislation and there are specific requirements to consult the public before adopting any changes to it. Policies in this group include resource management plan policies, reserve management plan policies and development contributions policies.
Other policies are clearly for internal use only. These include human resources policies such as computer use by staff, dress standards, or when leave without pay requests will be considered.
Then there are policies somewhere in the middle. This is the type of policy I have been working on and it is the main focus of this article. These types of policies affect members of the community, but there isn’t a legislative requirement to review them in a particular way. That means councils have more discretion about how much consultation to carry out, and the engagement methods to be used. These types of policies may relate to how a council goes about procuring services from businesses, providing funding for external organisations, or managing activities on road reserves.
If you are asked to develop or review one of these mid-range policies, it is really important to gain clear guidance from your manager or client on who will be responsible for approving the policy, as this will affect the process, timeframes and resources required to complete the work.
Once you have enough general guidance, it’s time to come up with a project plan. I followed the four steps recommended by Nancy J Campbell in ‘Writing Effective Policies and Procedures’, which are project planning, analysis, research and prewriting.
Step 1 – Project planning
Create an indicative plan of how to go about the drafting or review of the policy. There are some basic steps that apply to many different types of council policies:
- familiarising yourself with any existing policies and processes (if you are reviewing rather than developing a new policy)
- exploring options (based on desktop research, including other councils’ approaches)
- talking with content experts
- discussing a range of options and potential changes with stakeholders
- drafting a preferred approach
- checking back with the content experts and stakeholders.
You can customise these steps for your project, using the following table. Be as specific as possible about the types of documents you will access in the research phase, who you will meet with, as well as when you will do each task (what week or month), and how many hours you expect it will take.
Having a plan like this is really helpful when you are ‘in the weeds’ of grappling with the content of your policy review. It’s also valuable to track the actual hours you take to complete each task, as this will inform the planning of your future projects.
Step 2 – Analysis
Why is it necessary to develop a new policy (or review an existing one)? Have political and/or organisational priorities changed, or is the council experiencing problems with the implementation of an existing policy?
What does your manager (or client) want in terms of benefits for the council and the community? A good question to ask your manager or client is ‘what will success look like?’
Who are the content experts and stakeholders?
This is likely to include the staff who will be implementing the policy, people in the community who will be affected by it, council managers (who will need to consider the implications of any changes in terms of costs, ease of implementation, and the council’s reputation) and councillors.
What documents may need to change?
Other documents which may need to change as a result of your new or amended policy include:
- process guidelines
- website content
- fee schedules
- report templates.
Review of this content needs to be factored into your project plan early on. Build these changes into your research and consultation phases, and allow time to work on these documents.
Key questions to consider are:
- Who will you be working with on the project?
- Is there a specific deadline?
- Are the content experts and stakeholders you need to talk with available for meetings, or will you need to contact them remotely via phone, email or Skype?
- If you need to survey a large number of people, are they already listed in a database or will you need to generate this from scratch?
- Is the policy review of high political and/or public interest, or is it mainly an operational matter?
- How much time and/or money has been allocated for this work?
Step 3 – Research
This step is about planning your research — thinking about how much research you will need to do, and how you will do it. I prefer to do the prewriting (described next) before getting too deeply into the research phase, because it reduces information overload and enables me to be more targeted in my research.
Once you are ready to research, get as far as you can with your online (or hard copy) research first, as it will help you to identify the best questions to ask your content experts. It’s ideal to be able to meet with content experts in person. In ‘Writing Effective Policies and Procedures’ Nancy J Campbell notes that interviews are the best means of getting critical information from these people fast.
To respect your experts’ time and maximise the value of the meetings, prepare a set of questions. Start with a couple of easy-to-answer questions to get warmed up, before leading into more complex issues.
Step 4 – Prewriting
Create a mind map of your policy topic — brainstorm all possible associations with a series of key words. For example, if you need to write a discussion document first, you might start with these words: ‘background’, ‘options’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘implementation steps’. Alternatively, if it makes sense to create a draft policy first, you can use the likely headings within the policy.
A good mind map doesn’t take long, and you can’t do it wrong. As Nancy J Campbell writes, “the key to a mind-map is to write down everything you’re thinking about. Don’t self-censor, and don’t worry about the mechanics of writing. Once you have all the content issues in front of you, you can decide what to include and what to exclude. Then and only then are you ready to organise the material and worry about flow and sequence.” (Page 56)
Use your mind map to create an outline (as a list of key headings with bullet points) to guide the structure and content of the writing you need to do. Something I found really useful here was to figure out what documents I would need to write and how they all fitted together, as shown below.
Prewriting of the content:
- for the background paper with which to identify questions and gain feedback
- that becomes the basis of the discussion document for further feedback with x and x
- that leads to changes to the documents (including the policy) to support the agreed changes
- that becomes the basis for the report to the Committee (with the draft policy and process documents as appendices).