13 – Salvation, obfuscation or simply tokenistic? What roles do policies and strategies play in your organisation?

I was talking to a colleague whose Manager has recently joined Victorian local government for the first time, to find out what were her initial impressions. He said that she had commented on the large number of policies and strategies, and whether they could possibly be effective given the difficulties synchronising them and avoiding conflicts. It started me thinking.

When I first started working in local government we had policies and strategies. They were important documents that guided action. We didn’t have many and they weren’t changed without very good reason. Making a new one or changing an existing one, wasn’t a regular way forward on issues. That has certainly changed. Today, policy fills a number of roles, one of which is still to guide action. The other roles are worth some brief reflection.

Policy and strategies have increasingly become a source of salvation for CEO’s and senior managers faced with elected representatives wanting to pursue political goals that are unpopular, unaffordable, unachievable or unnecessary. It can be a way of saving politicians from themselves. Rather than committing to action on the initiative, a process to develop a policy or plan is commenced to ‘map the way ahead’. The fact that it often doesn’t lead to movement anywhere seems to go unnoticed. The last time I completed a stock take of strategies it revealed that the majority of actions hadn’t been acted on (in some cases after 20 years, although the strategy was still live) and the actions were not implemented for very good reasons. They just weren’t a good idea.

In fact doing the stock take revealed that the review schedule for policies and strategies was logistically unachievable without significant extra resources. If you look at the number of policies you have, the scheduled review interval (typically 3 to 5 years for policies and 5 to 10 years for strategies), and do the maths, you will realise that the organisation can’t actually do it without stopping delivering services to re-allocate the required resources to policy and strategy review.

Policy and strategies have also become a way to obfuscate. Instead of acting on an issue that has an obvious but difficult or expensive solution, a policy or strategy is created that hides the real significance of the issue and provides and easy, cheap and ineffective ‘way forward’. I have heard officers talking about policies or strategies that have been implemented and had no effect. The outcomes are still the same. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes the choice of policy or strategy in these situations is not deliberate – it has become almost innate and part of the modus operandi of some senior people.

One of my ‘favourite’ examples of strategies is one that deliberately failed to specifically address a critical and contentious issue. When I questioned the officer responsible for developing the strategy, he said that it was a deliberate decision on his part. Because he believed consensus was not possible and this would have delayed agreement to the strategy, he left it ambiguous so that it could be ‘sorted out later’. The ‘later’ happened to be when I became involved and there was a budget for works and no clarity about what to do. Thanks. He was a senior policy officer and it was his standard approach.

Policies and strategies have become increasingly tokenistic. In a recent post on the Pannell Discussions, the topic of ‘tokenistic policies’ was discussed. The focus was on government actions that are tokenistic, and as a consequence, unlikely to make a real difference. David Pannell asked, ‘why do governments do this, and how do they get away with it without provoking public anger?’ These are good questions and they apply to local government as much as any other level of government in Australia. I have seen policies that everyone knows are infeasible but it solves an immediate political issue in a way that minimises any future organisational commitment.

Pannell suggests two reasons for tokenistic policy. The first is to be seen to be doing something, even though they know that is unlikely to be successful. This is better to be seen to be doing nothing. His second reason is ignorance. People think it is a good idea and they don’t have the technical knowledge to know that is poor policy and will achieve little. His most interesting commentary is in relation to how governments get away with it. He cites four reasons:

  • Complexity – even experts would have trouble working out an effective policy response and most people can’t judge whether or not it is good policy and they end up trusting that the government is doing what it says it is.
  • Time lags – the effects of the policy won’t be known for some years, and by then it is hard to connect the results to the policy.
  • Intractability – some problems can only be solved at exorbitant expense or not at all. Implementing a low cost policy limits the waste of resources.
  • Communication challenges – it is just too hard to discuss the issues in terms that most people will comprehend.

I am not suggesting that all local governments are creating policies and strategies that are simply convenient but ineffective solutions to difficult problems; devices to avoid doing something that everyone knows should be done; or simply a way to be seen to be doing something with no intention of it being effective. However, there are occasions when they obviously do.

I suppose, we all need to ask ourselves the question.

Colin Weatherby

Pannell Discussions, http://www.pannelldiscussions.net/2014/10/274-tokenistic-policies