Well-written policy aligns actions with the mission

Good policy will drive successful actions that move organizations to solve long term issues.

Policy, a course of action adopted by a government, business or individual, is the board’s primary tool for accomplishing their over-arching mission. Clear policy, when written with careful consideration of as many facts and potential consequences as possible, gives all the benefit of clear understanding of how the organization works together to achieve the mission. Good policy guides the actions of the staff, and ultimately results in achievement of the organization’s mission, vision and goals.

So, how does a board write good policy? Basic philosophical beliefs and goals of the organization provide initial guidance. For governmental boards, while voters certainly expect their elected representatives to craft policy based on the beliefs they espoused when campaigning, there is much more to good policy.

Good policy also requires an element of stability. Change is certainly needed over time to keep up with shifting economies and situations, however, large and frequent swings in policy create uncertainty, which can be financially costly.

Reaching consensus on policy decisions requires the ability and willingness to listen carefully to, and genuinely consider others’ beliefs and needs. The idea is to craft policy that does such a good job of providing direction to an organization or government, while taking into account the diverse needs of all concerned, that there is no need for frequent changes in the policy to satisfy the particular group that is currently in power.

Does this mean that policy never needs to change? Absolutely not. There will be changes in society, changes in economic needs and conditions, unanticipated consequences of past policy decisions and plenty of other reasons to re-consider and make necessary changes to the policy. Carefully crafted policy will prove its value by its general acceptance and ability to meet the needs of people without frequent significant changes.

So, how does a board get to that point? Listening to each other is a start. Building good working relationships is also important. Everyone on the board being committed to working together with respect, in spite of differences, is necessary.

It is also critically important to understand in detail the problem you are attempting to solve. This understanding needs to incorporate several viewpoints to reduce the likelihood of creating more problems than the policy solves. It also involves gathering data and information in ways that clearly and truthfully illustrate the current situation and the level of effectiveness of current efforts.

Each board member also needs to take a long term approach, looking beyond their expected time in the board seat. Monitoring longer term trends is also important. There are several questions for board members to consider regarding any policy issue:

  • Is the issue I think I need to fix something that just came up?
  • Is it perhaps only a short term issue, or does it appear likely to go on for a considerable time?
  • How can we fix the problem without causing too many new ones?

It has often been said that policy development, or the legislative process, is too slow to react; it takes too long to do anything - that is in part by design. If we are careful enough in the process of developing policy, whether for a nonprofit, a government legislative body, or any other organization that is board governed, we can save ourselves time in the future, and create a more stable environment for the people being served by the organization or government.

Michigan State University Extension provides, through the Government and Public Policy Team and the Center for Local Government Finance and Policy, educational programs for local government officials and citizens regarding many aspects of local and tribal governments in Michigan. 

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