It is about values (What is a policy?)

When John Carver was developing Policy Governance® an early name for the model was Values Governance. Since boards are usually advised to govern by stating policy instead of issuing orders, and because policies should be expressions of values, he decided that more people would understand the model if he called it Policy Governance.

While those who understand policy can grasp the concept, I find that the word policy confuses many people.

What is a policy? It is usually described as a guide for actions. That’s true, but where does it come from? Sure, we all know: it comes from the boss (perhaps a manager, a parent, a board, or some other authority). So the people who are to be guided know who it comes from, but where does the idea or the substance for the policy arise? That’s what I’d like to explore here.

Let’s imagine a workplace where there are no policies. An employee approaches the boss and asks what to do about a current situation. The boss thinks about it for a moment, and maybe probes with a few questions to be sure that s/he is clear about the matter, and issues a decision: do this. The employee now knows what is expected in this situation and goes and does it.

The employee probably knows more than what to do in this current situation. That person can be reasonably sure that whenever a similar situation arises that the boss would expect it to be handled in similar manner. In fact, having once asked for a decision, it would probably annoy the boss if the employee bothered to ask again when a similar situation occurs. Why? As a result of that decision, the employee has an excellent example of what the boss would want done in this and similar situations.

In other words: the employee knows what results the boss values in this situation. The decision, then, is a good example of what the boss values. If one were to state that value as a guide to action, that statement would be a policy. Policies are always expressions of values.

In this case, the employee merely imagines what is the policy that was the guide to the decision. Technically this is called making policy by appeal. The request for the decision is the appeal, and the implied policy is assumed by the employee… and by everyone else in the workplace who cares about that boss’s values.

The problem with policy-by-appeal is that it is possible (even likely) for people to misinterpret the value behind the decision. It provides much greater clarity if policies are stated, and it is even better if they are written.

The point to note here is that behind every decision, or policy, is a value. In fact, a written policy must be an expression of that value.

Asking the question: “what do you value?” usually results in thinking that is too broad and vague to result in (say, a board) being able to write policy. In a Policy Governance setting I find that probing with two kinds of questions lead to a useful expressions of values. They are:

  • What are you concerned about? (This line of questioning leads to values that might become Executive Limitations or board means)
  • What results are required? (This might lead to Ends statements)

If you are someone who writes or issues policy, it means that you have the authority to guide the actions of others. Therefore, your policies are a method of exercising control.

The first person who hired me to write policies for his organization (long before I ever heard about Policy Governance) said that he wanted “policies that would empower people to act without having to ask for direction.” He said he wanted policies that would empower people to know how to act with confidence. He was more interested in that than a list of policies that would tell people what not to do. I discovered how liberating policies can be for people.

Now, when teaching Policy Governance, you will frequently hear me say, “control what you must, not what you can.”

© 2009 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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