Policy good practice – a thumbnail sketch

Thumbnail sketch2

People are asking me to deliver in-house workshops on policy good practice for university staff. So I’ve had to develop a flyer. This seemed to need a brief description of good practice in tertiary institution policy. Here’s the thumbnail sketch of this very complex topic that I came up with.

Most Australasian tertiary institutions need to improve their policy suite and how it is communicated to students and staff. There may be too many policies and procedures, including over-detailed material, written in ponderous language. Policies and procedures need to be combined into a tighter textual structure. which is easier to manage, navigate, read and communicate. Process detail needs to be moved outside the policy suite, where it can be updated by management. Policy needs to be aligned with IT systems so its effectiveness can be monitored through data measures. It needs to be aligned with regulatory frameworks and delegations of authority. Efficient, meaningful consultation is needed to ensure policies and procedures are relevant and staff are engaged with them. Individual policies need to be developed and implemented using project management methods, including change management. Institutions need a glossary of terms used in policies, with clear, concise definitions. Policies must be published on an easily usable, searchable platform with version histories and online feedback. Students and staff need support and resources to help them engage with policy.

Policy managers and policy developers can help transform the institutional policy culture, policy suite and policy library, if they understand how to go about it. This workshop equips them to do so.

What do you think?

I myself am aware that I left out four essential framing factors. The primary one is that the senior executive of the university have to lead the approach to policy, modelling a high regard for policy. To do this they need a well developed understanding of good practice in policy. Without this support, policy managers and policy developers are likely to have limited success at transforming the policy culture.

Also, student representatives must be included in policy leadership, not merely consulted about student-facing policy drafts. They should be involved in planning the direction of the institutional policy suite, as members of a group that steers the suite. (The creation of such a group is the third framing factor.) This is consistent with Professor Sally Varnham’s work on the student voice and its importance for institutional quality.

The fourth and last factor that I left out is transformation of institutional governance so that it checks regularly whether policies are achieving their intended effects. Governance committees should not be involved in approval of detailed processes under policy (this should be the role of management), but rather should debate the objectives of policies. Management should report to the committees on whether these purposes are being achieved.

With all these factors in place, the institutional policy culture can really start cooking!

But these framing factors seemed too much to explain in my little sketch – and perhaps a little scary for a marketing flyer – but I’ll certainly be including them in the detailed model of good practice I present in the workshops.


How much consultation is ‘just right’?


Just right2

Everyone knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Let’s use this as a metaphor for effective consultation in developing policy for tertiary education institutions.

Father Bear believes in minimal, formal consultation. Once all the decisions have been made and the drafts are done, then circulate them – or just publish them on a policy drafts page and announce the fact in the staff newsletter. Consultation box ticked.

Goldilocks tries this type of consultation, and decides it’s too harsh. Many staff aren’t aware of the policy draft, so they haven’t thought about how to implement the policy. They get the impression the policy owner isn’t interested in what they think, in their experience or in whether the policy will work for them. Staff tend to disengage from the whole policy process, and implementation is likely to be patchy.

So Goldilocks tries Mother Bear’s approach to policy consultation. Mother Bear holds initial workshops with anyone who cares to attend. She gathers lots of ideas and issues – many of them at low levels of detail – and tries to resolve them all in the drafts. Then she circulates the drafts to all the people who took part in the workshops. They raise more issues and concerns, which she tracks and tries to resolve in the drafts.

It all takes a long time and results in over-detailed policies. Senior managers get impatient. At least staff are fairly well aware of the project and can prepare for its implementation, but it’s likely to be a long, muddled policy – so staff aren’t very happy with it. Goldilocks decides Mother Bear’s approach is over-helpful – too sweet.

Then Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s approach, and thinks, ‘Ah! Just right.’ Baby Bear has a core group of senior staff nominated by their division or faculty to be the consultation contacts. (This could be a slightly different group for different parts of the policy suite. It helps if the contacts are reasonably familiar with the area of activity covered by the policy project.) Baby Bear holds initial workshops with this group and, as needed, with a few experts in the policy topic. Members of the group can gather the thoughts of others in their division or faculty. Once the drafts are developed, Baby Bear works through them with this core group.

It’s efficient, meaningful consultation. Because the group is relatively senior, they’re able to keep the various issues in proportion, maintain a commitment to clear, concise policy, and lead preparations for their division or faculty to implement the policy. This approach works even better if senior managers ask their consultation contacts to give policy consultation a high priority in relation to their other work. In this case the consultation can happen quickly, which keeps the senior managers happy and the policy work moving along.

So there you are. Take a middle path in consultation, work with a small network of designated contacts, so consultation is effective, efficient and meaningful.

The free line art graphic of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is by Star City Designs.

Passionate about policy

Presenters and chair2

Yesterday Andrew Heath of the Australian National University (right) and I presented on ATEM’s model of good practice in institutional policy, at the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference in Canberra. Our chair for the session was Dominic Riordan of the University of Wollongong (left). We got a pretty good turn-out (47 people) and several of these volunteered afterwards to be involved in preparing the third edition of the ATEM policy guide.

I found myself speaking passionately about the need to simplify and consolidate institutional policies by boiling them down to plainly expressed sets of rules. This makes them both more accessible and easier to review and update (as the set of texts is far smaller). A small policy suite can better support the institution’s strategy and be updated to keep up with rapid changes in the tertiary education sector.

The other aspect I found myself speaking passionately about was the way strong policy leadership by senior management can create a healthy institutional policy culture. If senior management model respect for policy and engage with it, other staff will take it seriously and engage with it. Policy can then realise its potential as a vibrant medium of institutional communication.

I was thinking – but didn’t get a chance to say – that strong policy leadership also solves the problem of slow-moving policy consultation (which so irks senior managers in my experience). If each senior manager nominates a policy consultation coordinator for their portfolio, and that person knows they’re expected to give policy consultation priority, then consultation can be very efficient. Those coordinators can also meet as a policy coordinating group for the institution – another feature of our good practice model.

The photographer who took photos of each presentation kindly gave me the image above. When I opened it to write this blog entry, I was startled to see how passionately I was making my point.

Unprincipled policy

I’m indebted to Dr Sarah Stow of RMIT University for persuading me that policies are best limited to a set of rules, and as far as possible should avoid stating principles. This makes for shorter, clearer texts and eliminates a source of disputes.

This doesn’t mean the organisation should lack principles – just that the principles should be published elsewhere.

The only exception is where staff need to understand the reason behind the rules in the policy – that is, unless we state a principle in the policy, there’s a risk of non-compliance.

An example of this type of exception is where a tertiary institution gives extra consideration in admission to applicants from equity groups – to indigenous applicants, applicants from low-income backgrounds, and so on.

An admission policy may need to state the principle that, to ensure equitable access to education, the institution gives extra admission consideration to equity groups. This will help admission staff understand why the policy requires them to give this extra consideration – and they’ll be more likely to give it.

In general, though, principles should be left to strategic plans. Policy is clearer and works better if it’s a set of rules and nothing else. In most cases, staff just want to know the rules for their area of work.

Stating principles in policy also creates a risk of dispute in case the organisation doesn’t manage to live up to its principles in policies governing decisions about clients or staff. Principles tend to be aspirational, and stating aspirations in policy can make for confusion, complaints, even litigation.

The idea that a policy is a statement of principles has, I think, come across from public policy. A political party states its policies in an election campaign: a set of objectives the party will work towards if elected. If the party becomes the government, its policies become (generally in a modified form) the policies of the departments of the public service.

This political meaning of policy shouldn’t be confused with organisational policy. They’re different animals.

Excellent policy on a shoestring

Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2018  is a great year for you.

There’s more pressure now on Australian tertiary education providers to demonstrate efficiency than ever before: indeed, a slice of their funding depends on this.

Accordingly institutions will need to run their policy framework with the minimum of resources.

Yet policy is a crucial part of organisational communication and quality. The new Higher Education Threshold Standards refer to policy throughout and require institutions to demonstrate that it’s effective.

So how can institutions have excellent, effective policy on a shoestring?

Elaine Abery  and Alice Jackson of the University of Newcastle offered a persuasive model of efficient policy development at our recent annual forum of the ATEM Institutional Policy Network.

I describe the model as controlled devolution. Development and review of policies are devolved to policy owners – the executives and managers responsible for specific areas of institutional activity. So no extra staff are employed to consult stakeholders and write policy.

At the same time, a tiny central policy team exercises rigorous control over the policy process and the resulting texts, to ensure these are well done.

The central policy team does this by:

  1. having strong support from the whole senior executive team
  2. providing training on the institution’s approach to policy for policy owners and their stakeholders
  3. controlling the annual schedule of projects to develop and review policies, so only a few projects are under way at a time – and it’s understood these will be completed quickly – within a few months
  4. gatekeeping to ensure policies contain only material appropriate to policy (e.g., nothing that can be relegated to information web pages)
  5. reviewing policy owners’ lists of stakeholders for consultation, and expanding these if necessary to ensure  all stakeholder areas are consulted
  6. requiring that stakeholder workshops are held before drafting starts, so the drafts are shaped by stakeholder needs rather than policy owners’ preconceptions
  7. requiring further stakeholder workshops to review drafts
  8. editing policy  drafts if necessary to ensure they’re clear and in as plain English as possible, and aren’t over-detailed.

And that’s the recipe for low cost, high quality institutional policy. Note that an important part of the central unit’s role is to ensure real consultation with a representative group of stakeholders.

A word of warning though. This model needs strong senior leadership support, and firm but diplomatic leadership by the policy unit, so policy owners won’t be restive under the high level of central control.

The policy unit also needs high-level editing skills, so they can work closely with policy owners to improve the drafts where needed. This means not just skill with language but also understanding the content.


Best practice guide – third edition soon

Now that I’ve moved to Bermagui, NSW, I’m about to start leading the drafting of the third edition of Policy Without (Much) Pain, the guide to better practice in institutional policy development and policy management, for Australasian tertiary institutions.

A number of institutional policy managers who are active in the Institutional Policy Network of the Association for Tertiary Education Management have put  up their hands to be involved in drafting the third edition. The first two editions have been very successful, between them selling more than 500 copies.

A big topic for the new edition, in my view, is how tertiary institutions can run their policy framework with the minimum resources – given that universities are required by the federal government to become more efficient.

At the institutional policy forum in Melbourne in October, Elaine Abery and Alice Jackson of the University of Newcastle offered an impressive model of devolved but rigorously coordinated institutional policy. More of that in my next post.

In a related development, Universities Australia have agreed that Andrew Heath of ANU and I can present at the Universities Australia conference in February on ATEM’s institutional policy best practice model. Dominic Riordan of the University of Wollongong will chair the session.

We hope to engage the senior university leaders attending that conference with ATEM’s model, so the third edition of the policy guide can set out a model of institutional policy that is generally accepted and endorsed.

This has the potential to help Australian universities develop policy frameworks that will support an excellent student and staff experience. Hence the  title of our presentation: ‘Framing Excellence: ATEM’s best practice model for institutional policy’.

Institutional policy for VET

AUSTAFE Conference panel

At the recent AUSTAFE Conference in Brisbane (12 October) I was on a panel with Andre Diez De Aux (Director, Quality Services of TAFE Directors Australia – right), and Nils Vesk (a Futurist – centre). I suggested that getting institutional policy right strengthens the community of a TAFE institution. It’s integral to a dynamic organisational culture that enables innovation.

Getting policy right (in my view) means doing it in a way that engages staff and students with policy – plenty of communication and streamlined consultation, resulting in a policy suite that’s as clear and simple as the content permits. Given the conference focus on digital disruption, I emphasised the need for policy to be thoughtfully integrated with digital systems, with data measures of implementation, and to be accessible to staff and students via policy portals and resources designed for them. To achieve this enviable state, senior leadership must demonstrate that they value policy, and the central policy team needs to combine rigorous quality control with a strong service ethos.

I learned a lot from the conference about the current challenges facing VET. I was particularly struck by the repeated observation that Australian training products (training packages and the units of competency that make them up) change too slowly to keep up with the pace of digital innovation and new technology. We need to find a way to make training products more flexible.