Webinar  21 November 2012 –  Writing policies and procedures: The most common issues, and how to fix them

We will be hosting a free 60 minute webinar called “Writing policies and procedures: The most common issues, and how to fix them” on Wednesday 21st November.

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Writing clear policy documents

Clear policies and procedures can have a profound effect on any organisation; they ensure that people know what they are doing, systems work properly and the people within the organisation are confident that the information in the policies and procedures is accessible, easy to understand and current.

However, writing clear policy documents can be very difficult to do.

Before you can write a good policy, you need clear decisions on which to base your writing. If the organisation doesn’t have a clear sense of what it wants to do, you as the writer will be compromised – there is only so much you can do with confusing or incomplete information. Policymakers must agree on policy before you, the writer, can write the policies.

You must also decide on your audience – whom you are writing for. The answer is often, our policy is for everyone, they all need to read and understand it. However, this means you have to write a document that must address multiple audiences with different agendas.

The temptation is to write policy documents primarily for those who audit the policies, which means the documents are often written in the passive voice. The problem with that is it can cause  a reader to become a passive spectator – they don’t ‘get’ what they are expected to do. The rules here is simple:

  • Imagine the least experienced user and write for that person.
  • Write primarily for those who need to use or implement the information.

Policies and procedures should always accomplish something – never write a policy or procedure just because it seems like a good idea. Very often policies and procedures can be knee jerk reactions to an incident. Somebody makes a mistake and someone else says “we should put a policy in place in case it happens again”.

You need to be a ruthless editor to avoid repetition and confusion across a myriad of documents. Break information down into ‘chunks’ or ‘topics’, with each topic containing one subject with a specific purpose, and then refer to (or embed) that topic in the other documents.

We’ve been working on a project to simplify policy documents within an NHS Trust. It’s a challenge simplifying a set of complex interlocking documents, but the results can be striking – helping staff understand why they should do things in a certain way and what the organisation is aiming to achieve.

The guilty pleasure of writing policy and procedure documents

We have a number of projects running at the moment that involve us improving organisations’ policy and procedures documents. It may not seem likely, but these projects are enormous fun.

The best analogy I can find is that it’s like rearranging someone else’s record collection. Or in a more modern setting, it’s like creating a playlist from someone else’s mp3 files. Everything ends up in order, or as Hans Christian Anderson said, “everything in the right place”.

The trick with policy and procedures documents is to break them in to small chunks of information, each of them preceded by a heading that describes the topic. The key factor is: each topic must only contain the information described by the heading. This activity results in the equivalent of a big bag of lego bricks – giving you, as your next step, the pleasant task of connecting and arranging all these topics into the right order.

To work in this modular, object, based way it’s best to avoid tools that take a more linear approach, such as Microsoft Word. We’d recommend, instead, you use a ‘modular’ authoring tool that enables you to generate a Word or PDF document once you’ve finished.