Implied Policy

If you have people who are accountable to you, you don’t need to formally issue policy statements to create policy. Parents, bosses, boards, government administrations, etc. are producing implied policy all of the time.

Every time someone, or some administrative body, issues a decision, all of the people who are stakeholders in that decision will not only attend to the decision itself, they will also try to asses the implied values or policies that were used to create this decision.

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Imagine that an employee comes to the boss and asks, “What should I do about this?” If the boss responds by giving an instruction (the usual response), that employee (and everyone else who is watching) will assume that this is how to cope with all similar situations. They will interpret the instruction in terms of the implied values or the general policy that would result in the instruction.

In some cases, the implied policy is obvious and such assumptions are appropriate. In many cases, however, the boss would be horrified to discover what policy the workplace has assumed to lie behind that decision.

This kind of policy formulation is called “policy by appeal.” The employee appealed for a decision, and thereafter this workgroup labors under the implied policy.

Many years ago when I was an employee, some of us avoided taking an action that we thought would be really beneficial for the organization — but was also a bit radical. The reason was that some time before two members of the board had vigorously opposed and defeated a similar plan. One day we were at an informal event where we were able to explore the concept. Without blinking, those board members said they thought it was a good idea. When we, incredulously, pointed out that this was at odds with their former decision, they told us the story of the former decision, revealing that it included factors of which we were unaware. Since the board had issued a decision without revealing the policy or values behind it, our group was following an incorrect implied policy.

With Policy Governance, we teach the boards to articulate all of their values in the form of written policies. While boards are often tempted to take the simple course and respond to a situation with a decision, the consequences of that decision often go far beyond the current situation.

If there is any discrepancy between the implied policy that results from an appeal of a decision, and the written policy, those accountable will always assume that the implied policy is the real policy. It is, after all, the one that was the basis of the most recent board decision.

© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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