Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.
Public safety personnel are keenly aware of organizational policy. We live and breathe policies and procedures daily. At Lexipol, we spend a significant amount of time drafting national and state policies, developing commensurate training programs, and working with thousands of public safety agencies to help them maintain contemporary policy manuals. Effective policies can make or break an agency. Policy is one of those things we will pay for, one way or the other. We can pay for it now by dedicating the necessary in-house resources to research and development or by procuring policy development and management services from a vendor such as Lexipol. Or we can pay for it later when something goes wrong, resulting in costly litigation and a potentially hefty settlement.
As a leader, it’s essential that you know your organization’s policy front and back. Your personnel depend on you to provide guidance on daily tasks and feedback on individual performance. The line of expectation leaders enforce is grounded in policy. The late British theater director William “Bill” Gaskill noted how “policy is the people you work with.” There are also theoretical considerations related to policy and leadership. Dr. Kevan Lamm and his colleagues noted how “… leaders help explain, frame, and make meaning of [important] issues.” Interestingly, they go on to assert how “[t]he ability to provide a unifying vision and act of collaborative manner has been associated with effective leadership under relational conditions” when it comes to a leader’s role during policy formulation.
If your agency doesn’t have a well thought-out and thorough policy manual, you’re at risk. Your personnel and the public depend on systematic accountability that only occurs through effective policy management. Probably the most challenging job I held in law enforcement was my last assignment as the agency’s policy director. Our division was responsible for not only management of departmental policies and procedures, but statewide accreditation efforts. Although it was an exhausting, labor intensive, and never-ending process, it was essential to keep our agency of over 2,000 personnel on track. Maintaining policy requires constant research, in addition to appropriate legal review. It’s also important to note that size doesn’t matter. Whether you’re the member of a 10-person agency or an agency of 10,000, good policy is a must.
There are myriad approaches to developing policy. Some agencies combine high-level guidance with step-by-step procedures in the same documents, while others simplify the process and create policies focused on essential job requirements. In its rawest form, policy refers to the plans, positions and guidelines of an organization, which influence the decisions and actions of organizational members. Organizational policy is typically reflected in standard operating procedures, specific organizational practices or general orders. Dr. S.B. Marume’s research takes the concept a step further as he identifies four additional definitions. Consider policy as a:
- Guide of action or statement of goals that should be followed in an institution to deal with a particular problem or phenomenon or a set of problems of phenomena.
- Guide to action that should be followed by individuals in the organization in order to provide consistence of decisions.
- Goal and objective within a given situation and the methods to realize them.
- Statement of goals and intentions with respect to a particular problem or set of problems.
Policy development generally involves research, analysis, consultation and synthesizing information to formulate appropriate recommendations. It also involves an evaluation of options against a set of criteria used to assess each option. This is the nature of research and development and one of the many reasons effective policy development is such a time-consuming and arduous process.
The Leader and Policy
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the leader’s relationship with organizational policy. Without effective leadership, policies are merely words on paper (or a computer screen). The organization owns a big part of the process as well. Effective policy management includes crafting operational policies and procedures that are not only well-researched and contemporary, but are also easily understood by all personnel and established with realistic expectations. Marume identifies leaders as key actors in strategic policy development and notes how “meaningful, necessary and appropriate policy development depends on effective policy research and analysis, policy dialogues, and above all training and the sharing of information.” These important aspects can’t happen without leadership.
Policies and procedures typically have a direct impact on line-function employees. Soliciting their input is important, especially before implementation of a new policy.
When it comes to policy, an effective organizational environment is one that considers two primary attributes: leadership support and infrastructure support. Leadership direction and support includes all levels of the chain of command, as well as internal staff functions designed to support the organization. Infrastructure support includes internal processes and procedures along with mechanisms of standardization that ensure all policies are developed and managed consistently. Each of these attributes is interrelated; together, they determine an organization’s capacity to perform optimally.
Leaders also drive and sustain policy development. Communication and the provision of necessary staff resources are critical. It’s also important to determine whether issues are multi-faceted and multi-layered, involving more than one division, level of government or other agencies. One of the critical strategies to successful policy development involves accurate identification of who needs to be involved in the process—a determination of relevant stakeholders. Another critical aspect for leaders to consider involves assigning the right resources to address the policy issue at hand. Policy leaders should be careful and resist the temptation of assigning whatever resources and personnel are conveniently available at the time to work on a particular issue. Within the context of overburdened resources, this may mean temporarily re-assigning staff or reprioritizing work to achieve the best results within the necessary time frames.
Understanding the Policy-Making Process
Policy development should involve an evaluation of options against a set of criteria used to assess each option and the desired outcome. Marume points out that “Policy is not static. Therefore, policy should be reformulated and adapted continually on the basis of experience, research in the relative field of operation, and changing circumstances and needs.” This should go without saying, but I can’t count how many times I’ve seen organizations draft policy as either a kneejerk reaction to an isolated incident or in response to a perceived issue rather than one that was well-researched and grounded in good data. This is simply policy development for the sake of policy. I’m sure no one in public safety ever said, “Wow, I wish I had more policies to review!”
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to policy development. In public safety, we are often our own worst enemy when it comes to this concept. How many agencies simply “borrow” policies from another organization? What about the collection of CEO memos or emails that are accepted as internal policy? Don’t forget about the policy manual that resides in the back bookshelf, covered in dust.
Your personnel and the public depend on systematic accountability that only occurs through effective policy management.
According to Lamm et al, the policy process can be conceptualized into five primary steps:
- A problem is identified and the agenda setting process is initiated.
- Policy formulation occurs, specifically, and courses of action are proposed.
- Policy adoption occurs and includes selecting an option.
- Policy implementation addresses the way in which policies will be fulfilled.
- Policy evaluation focuses on whether the policy achieves the stated goals.
Lamm’s model certainly has merit; however, I think it’s easy to over-complicate the process. I typically try to focus on three primary attributes when formulating policy: issue identification, generating solutions and performance measurement.
#1: Identify Issues
One of the most important components involves accurate identification of any issue requiring a policy. At this stage it’s vitally important to distinguish the symptoms or effects of a problem from the problem itself. We must define the problem clearly enough to give focus and direction to developing options designed to address it. Ideally, we should define the issue in such a way that allows us to track changes once the desired policy is implemented. Analyze key aspects such as how often the problem occurs, when it occurs and its impact. From here we can better determine our desired state—in other words, what we hope to accomplish after the policy is implemented.
#2: Generate Solutions
Once we have clearly identified the issue we wish to address through policy, it’s time to identify solutions geared toward solving the problem or at least mitigating its effects. I’ve seen many agencies struggle during this step, primarily because they fail to consider alternatives outside of their comfort zone. This is common in public safety agencies since there is often a more conservative approach used during decision-making processes—we stick with what we know rather than explore alternatives through research.
As we establish a list of solutions, the pros and cons of each option should be compared and systematically evaluated to a pre-established set of criteria. From there, it’s important to systematically evaluate options against each of the criteria. Some key examples of this criteria include:
- Timeframe for policy implementation
- Impact on stakeholders or potential adverse impacts
- Potential cost implications
- Legal considerations
- Consistency with other policies, procedures, etc.
- Potential risks involved
There can obviously be more or fewer criteria to consider, depending on the issue or policy desired and the complexity of both.
#3: Measure Performance
Policy development shouldn’t occur within a vacuum. Once a policy is created, it’s equally important to conduct some level of follow-up to ensure the policy is accurately addressing the desired outcome. One way to do this is to establish a checklist of related criteria that guides the process of evaluation. Assuming a policy is necessary and was properly designed, establishing performance criteria should be easy. Some examples of follow-up criteria include:
- Determination of appropriate funding or resource procurement – did we have or obtain the appropriate resources?
- Risk management – did the policy reduce risk and accurately address the issue?
- What was the policy’s impact on stakeholders?
- Was the policy feasible – did personnel comprehend and adhere to the new policy guidelines?
This list is not all-inclusive and other criteria will depend on the type of policy established. Leaders are an important part of this process since they are close to the issue and are in a good position to receive feedback from affected stakeholders.
Consider the Impact
Policy development is a complex and important part of organizational life. Leaders share an important role in this process even if they are not responsible for specifically crafting policy. It’s important for public safety agencies to use effective policy planning and implementation to provide the best possible service to the public. Another common mistake that occurs during policy development is failure to consider unintended consequences or adverse impacts on relative stakeholders. Policy cannot be a one-person decision, nor a decision taken lightly. Too often, we see ineffective or unnecessary policies created simply due to a lack of experience, inadequate research or inaccurate data.
Listen to your people and provide a forum for discussing alternatives when problems arise. In public safety, policies and procedures typically have a direct impact on line-function employees. Soliciting their input is important, especially before implementation of a new policy. Former Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole said that “the best public policy is created when you are listening to people who are going to be impacted.” Like anything else in leadership, listening to those under your charge is imperative.
- Lamm KW, Randall NL, Lamm AJ et al. Policy Leadership: A Theory-Based Model. Journal of Leadership Education. 2019;18(3):185–191. Accessed 12/13/21 from: https://journalofleadershiped.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/18_3_Lamm.pdf.
- Marume SB. Public Policy and Factors Influencing Public Policy. International Journal of Engineering Science Invention. 2016;5(6):6–14. Accessed 12/13/21 from: http://www.ijesi.org/papers/Vol(5)6/B05060614.pdf.