Writing a policy that works

From government to corporations to non-governmental organizations, organizations of all kinds develop policies around particular issues, such as management of personal information, workplace conduct, service delivery, or accountability. After their adoption, however, policies often collect dust. Sometimes this is because they are too high-level; they articulate values and principles but offer no practical guidance. Sometimes it is because they are too low-level, mainly specifying procedures that may quickly become irrelevant in a changing context.

What is it, fundamentally, that contributes to successful policies? Generally speaking, people turn to policies for guidance on how to respond to events or resolve conflicts. Successful policies are those that are written in such a way that their application to a variety of situations is clear. Writing a clear and effective policy is largely a matter of understanding how language functions to define norms and their enforcement.

Effective Policy Style

Our approach to policy writing is primarily focused on core principles of normative styles, as defined by authors including Logrippo and Sartor. Writing effective policy requires understanding how language structures dictate what can be included in policies and what cannot.

An effective policy contains three types of provisions: declarative, procedural, and structural. An appropriate combination of these types of provisions makes policies general enough to be flexible, and specific enough to be enforceable.

    Purpose   Example

“How it should be”

Articulate principles or a desired state of affairs “An organization is responsible for personal information under its control.”

“How it should be done”

Specify actions to be taken in response to particular situations or events “An individual’s personal information will be deleted from records at his or her request.”

“Who should do what”

Define functions, roles, activities, and their relationships “The client service function will only share clients’ personal information with the fundraising function with clients’ explicit consent.”

Well-written policies, composed of high-level, declarative statements clarified and specified by procedural and structural statements, are relatively simple to implement and enforce. The key to writing effective policy is writing implementable policy. High-level policy statements cease to be merely abstract statements of values and principles when they are translated into clear procedures to be carried out by defined roles or functions within an organization. Procedures and structures are prevented from becoming arbitrary and inflexible customs when they are defined as means of implementing specific purposes or requirements. Policies stratified by three levels of normative statements – declarative, procedural, and structural – will occasionally require revision, but run little risk of collecting dust or leaving readers confused.