Top policy management blunders in schools – do you recognise any of these?

In the second article of a four-part series exploring the issues relating to policy management within schools we look at some of the most common policy management blunders.

While the benefits of effective policy management are clear (refer to Part One of this series), this article illustrates that the path to effective policy management may be a little more complex than most school’s realise.

James Field, Managing Director, CompliSpace

Do you recognise any of these policy management blunders?

1. Having no policies in place. Over the years we have come across more than a handful of executives that refuse to document internal policies and procedures. The overwhelming reason appears to be that they have had a bad experience where their organisation’s documented policies have not been properly implemented, and have subsequently been relied upon in legal claims by former staff members. For those that do not believe in documenting policies and procedures we wholeheartedly agree that you shouldn’t publish policies that you are not going to enforce. We also wholeheartedly believe that you can achieve the significant benefits outlined in the Part One of this series if you take the time and effort to ensure effective policy implementation and maintenance.

2. Paper-based content distribution. We don’t see this too much these days, as most schools make their policies available from a centralised publishing location such as an intranet or even a shared drive, where they can be assured (at least in theory) that only the latest version of the policy is available to staff. The old model of distributing paper-based policy manuals is fraught with danger as every policy change requires each and every distributed version to be updated. Of course, the updates rarely happen in practice with the end result being that an school has multiple, uncontrolled versions of policies and procedures floating around. All in all, a true recipe for chaos.

3. Lack of policy management systems and expertise. The degree of skill required to draft policies, and effectively implement and maintain policies, is commonly underestimated within schools. Not only must schools be able to prioritise which policies need to be created, they must also be able to identify individuals that can write in plain English, while conforming to organisational standards and styles. Simply issuing an edict to senior staff to draft policies in their areas of influence and expertise wont work without a well defined policy management process. Many of the “policy blunders” listed in this article come down to a lack of policy management systems and expertise.

4. Policy approval processes. Policy approval processes can range from “ad-hoc” to “over-the-top”. In our experience, schools that require the board of governors or the principal to approve all policies and procedures (this typically occurs in smaller schools) usually end up in policy paralysis, or with the school running on a set of informal “unapproved policies”. Other schools have little or no policy controls in place, which can be equally as dangerous. Schools need to strike the right balance and establish a workable system for reviewing, approving, publishing policies as well as maintaining version control.

5. Cut and paste policy creation. It is a bizarre fact that while many schools will happily admit to not having the requisite internal subject matter expertise, this does not appear to be a barrier to delegating the drafting of a particular policy to a person who lacks the necessary skill and expertise in the area. This is commonly seen with organisational policies, such as human resources and workplace safety, where it seems that “cut and paste” policy creation (often after a quick “Google search”, or plagiarising policies of another school) still seems to be common practice. The end result is similar to “Chinese whispers” as basic errors often accumulate and the policies fail to fit the end user’s requirements.

6. Bulky all-in-one manuals. Even where schools are using intranets to publish policies, it is still very common for us to come across schools that have spent a lot of time and money creating bulky manuals (often running to tens, if not hundreds of pages) that are distributed in hard copy. Unfortunately, these manuals (which often contain a wide variety of cross-functional content) are almost impossible to keep up-to-date and are similarly difficult to read. Often, the end result is that the manual becomes a useful doorstop and a litigation aid for disgruntled staff, students/parents. The solution to this problem is “policy de-aggregation”, which simply means breaking down the content contained in bulky manuals into individual policies so they can be easily maintained and referenced.

7. Siloed policy creation. In our experience in many school policies are often created for meeting “re-registration” requirements or in reaction to a particular incident that may have occurred within the school. When this occurs, the focus is often on putting together a document that will “comply” or “pass muster”, rather than putting together a policy that will work in practice. When policies are created this way, schools often suffer from “siloed policy syndrome” where each policy is designed as a stand-alone document without reference to other school policies. This leads to inconsistencies between policies and difficulties in staff being able to follow policies effectively.

8. Lack of accessibility. It is critical that a school’s policies are accessible from a central publishing platform, to the individuals that need to access them. We know “paper-based policies” don’t work (point 2), and we know policies hidden in bulky manuals are difficult to access (point 6). It follows that bulky policy documents posted to a share drive or intranet in Word or PDF format are similarly difficult to access. We believe in the “rule of 3”. Policies should be accessible to those that need to reference them in less than 3 clicks, or in 3 seconds. To achieve this level of accessibility you need to have de-aggregated policies (point 6) available through an online content management system (CMS) / “intranet” presented through a logical classification methodology and in a text searchable format. You also need to have a means of segregating policy access based on security levels so individuals can only access policies that relate to their specific roles and responsibilities.

9. Lack of vertical policy integration. Whereas a well designed policy management platform (point 8) will allow an individual to quickly access one policy from another policy, vertical policy integration enables the individual to easily follow a particular policy to its operational outcome. In very simple terms this means that if a particular policy refers to another policy, or to a form or checklist that needs to be completed, people must be able to quickly access this related information. Ideally forms and checklists should be accessible from mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. Without effective vertical integration, policies are often “left on the shelf” and become disconnected from day-to-day operations.

10. Lack of policy ownership. Policies need to be owned by an individual within the school, otherwise no one is accountable for ensuring that the policy is effectively implemented, reviewed and maintained. The concept of ownership is relatively simple.  The person with responsibility for a particular functional area is usually responsible for the management of policies in that area. Notwithstanding the simplicity of the concept, it is not unusual in our experience for key policies to fall between the cracks and to fall into disrepair for the very reason that no individual within the school was allocated responsibility for their implementation, review and maintenance.

11. Not having an assurance program. How do you know if staff are actually following your school’s policies and procedures and/or the policies and procedures are being maintained up-to-date? The simple answer is you don’t, unless you have some form of assurance process in place. Typically, the assurance process starts with allocating ownership to the policy. It then involves extracting the key operative parts of the policy (e.g. Epi-pens must be checked for their use by date) and allocating them to a responsible individual. This is often managed as a compliance task. Finally, there needs to be a process for monitoring whether or not the task has been completed and reporting the status of the task back up the line the school executive team. An assurance program allows a school to see what’s working, and what’s not, which is the starting point for a continual improvement process.

The next article in this series – “Where is your school in terms of policy management maturity?” – we will develop a basic model designed to assist you to identify how your school is currently performing with respect to policy management.


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