Upskilling and continuous learning are beneficial to every public servant, and identifying those topics that will be critical over the next few years is definitely the way to start.
A recent article recommended a number of technical skills that are valuable for public servants to acquire, for instance systems thinking and user-centred design. Although the list contained a lot of useful information, one important skill was overlooked: policy drafting.
Yes, policy drafting is a skill. Too many government organisations take their subject matter experts and task them with writing policies, standards, and procedures without ever providing them training on how to actually do it. As a result, many policy documents are written exactly the same way they were 20 years ago, so neither the structure nor the language reflects the changing times.
In the 17 years I spent in the federal government — much of them writing policies — there was little offered in the way of training on this subject. Fortunately, having practised law many years earlier, I was quite familiar with how legislation is drafted. I was able to pull some lessons from that world that are applicable to policy drafting.
In this article, I look at some of the benefits we could reap if this skill got the attention it deserved, and I offer some suggestions of topics for training to focus on.
Well-drafted policy statements invite compliance. They are easier to administer, to maintain, and to enforce, reducing overall the amount of time an organisation needs to spend on those activities.
Moreover, they make the internal audit process easier because the auditors can figure out exactly what the expected results are.
From an economic standpoint, a well-drafted policy costs far less to produce, because it can speed through the consultation and approval process much more quickly than a poorly written one.
The all-too-common complaint about policies being too long is not unfounded. Too many policies continue to be bloated with procedures, standards, principles, explanatory statements, examples, and guidance, all of which belong in other documents.
Without the skills to recognise the differences among those types of statements, writers too often throw them all into a single pile. Like a kitchen drawer that fails to separate the forks, knives, spoons, and cooking utensils from one another, the combination of new rules and existing rules in the same document produces a tangled mess. As a result, valuable time is wasted editing, discussing, and rewording statements that don’t belong in the policy in the first place.
This disorganisation can be prevented with a solid foundation in place such a proper policy framework. Unfortunately, this piece is often missing or deficient, and the ability to recognise gaps in one’s current policy framework is sorely lacking.
Too many administrative and operational policies sound like a sergeant barking orders at the troops. Policy statements that need to set out mandatory requirements are especially susceptible to this shortcoming, and often sound overly aggressive and dictatorial.
Writing neutral, informative rules is a skill, and quite an important one if your goal is engagement and compliance rather than resistance.
The majority of government policies in place use a distinctly antiquated wording. The authoritarian style is representative of the way that management spoke to employees 30 years ago, which might have been acceptable at the time. That style is considered inconsistent with modern corporate culture and values, and today no one talks that way to their employees. Yet, many still write that way, and it’s due to a lack of training.
Tone of voice
Too many policy writers pay no attention to the tone of voice of their rules. As a result, the language often sounds much harsher to the reader than it does to the writer.
In the absence of some awareness around this issue, most people default to the bossy tone of rule-making they heard from their parents and teachers growing up. That tone is born of a Parent-Child paradigm — as it’s called in Transactional Analysis — and is not appropriate in a work situation. The ability to give instructions in a way that reflects an Adult–Adult relationship takes some practice, but it gets easier the more you do it — just like any other skill.
The irony is that many government organisations are making great strides in their efforts to foster a respectful work environment. They declare “respect for others” as one of their core values and genuinely want to improve the working relationships between management and employees. What a shame, then, when all that hard work is seemingly contradicted by the tone of voice in their policy instruments. In those cases, it looks like the organisation is not walking the talk.
Here’s a good example of how easily a poorly worded rule can be improved:
“Travel expenses submitted with wrong form will not be reimbursed.”
That statement is written in the negative, using the traditional “Bad-thing + punishment” format. It sounds — well, bossy. There’s a subtle, but clearly perceptible, undertone along the lines of “We’ve had enough of too many people not using the correct form.”
Let’s fix it up by turning it around:
“Travel expenses are reimbursed when submitted using the proper form.”
Now the statement is informative, helpful, and doesn’t sound like an angry parent scolding a naughty child.
Not rocket science
Drafting policies and directives is not rocket science, but it does require specific knowledge and skills that must be deliberately acquired. The quality of the finished product more than pays for the time invested in improving those skills.
Let’s add policy drafting to the list of essential skills for public servants in the next few years.