Six Common Errors of Policy Writing and Design

Six Common Errors of Policy Writing and Design

Jak Spencer, Chief Impact Officer at Polyloop

Jak Spencer, Chief Impact Officer at Polyloop

Recently, we held a design sprint - a short, sharp burst of research and ideation with our multidisciplinary team, to really understand a thorny issue that we don't think has been tackled or answered particularly well previously. For this one we tackled the small issue of "what does a good policy look like?"

To really get under the hood of the issue we looked at what bad policy looks like, where policies have been successful, and what they might look like in a dystopian and utopian future. Whilst also asking the small question of why policies exist in the first place. We think we’ve analysed and interrogated over 10,000 policy documents between the team. Here’s our take on 6 common errors that go into policy writing and design. 

The Policy Word Document Soup

From forty pages to over 500, policy documents are long, verbose and often unintelligible. What hope do we have of making these documents accessible and the impact of them visible, when, let's be honest, very few of us ever read a policy cover to cover. Worse, whilst themes, focus areas or priorities try to converge the case for change into easy to understand buckets, they immediately create a disconnect between the data and the action to help solve the challenge. 

“We’re not playing to our audience - how do we expect the public to engage with a hundred page verbose document” - Major cross-national funding body

We recognise the need to pack in huge amounts of data and information to help understand the problem and lead us to a solution, but there must be more coherent and concise ways of condensing these documents into accessible and informative calls to action.

The Thinkers vs the Doers

Many policies have a significant disconnect in them. Notably, between how a strategic policy is created in the first place; where it came from, why now, what is the problem that needs to be solved? And the delivery of that strategic policy; what is the programme for change, desired outcomes, who is going to deliver it and how will we measure progress? 

Not only are the people in this process usually disconnected (senior politicians and leaders of organisations vs officers and managers), but even the presentation of our policy information is disconnected - with strategic policy documents often separated from their action plans and programmes of change. 

"There are the big thinkers who dream up these policies and outcomes - and they are usually not policy writers - and then there's us, the doers, who have to pull together a programme of actions in that direction. We're not connected".  - Programme Officer for a local authority

Why Policy? 

What is a policy built on and why does it exist in the first place? Why are we renewing it, or creating a new one? Whilst nearly all policy documents identify a ‘case for change’ they often exclude the sporadic and variable reasons for why a policy exists in the first place. Is it purely to solve a social challenge or is it politically motivated? Did the media help to drive the agenda? Is it just at the end of the cycle and needs renewing? Why this issue, and why this policy? What are the hypotheses we are building the policy on and trying to change?

“You have to wonder sometimes why a policy exists in the first place. I shouldn’t say it, but often it’s either a personal agenda that is driving it or inertia of ‘it’s always been this way" - Policy officer, government department.

Problem: poverty; solution: reduce poverty. 

We recognise that all policy objectives aim to do good for the world. To improve the situation for improved outcomes and a better quality of life for our citizens. However, we have come across far too many examples of verbose, well intentioned statements that offer no real tangible benefit to the world. Of course we all want to reduce unemployment, create new skilled jobs, take action on climate, improve wellbeing, increase educational attainment and so on. But specifically why are we trying to achieve this, how are we going to do it, and how are we going to prove we have changed the status quo? This takes detailed, nuanced objectives and outcomes and also recognising that there are multiple pathways to achieve the same outcome. One pathway up the mountain might have fewer risks but is longer in duration whilst another route might be quicker but entail more technical challenges. 

“The tenth man argument. Our policy documents tend to suggest there is only one true path - when in reality there are multiple ways to do something, all with differing challenges and opportunities. There’s also little understanding of plotting any new pathway against the perceived trajectory of the status quo.” - Director, government department. 

What Gets Measured, Gets Managed

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so” - V. F Ridgeway (1956)

We’re only at the start of our journey in understanding our complicated relationship with metrics and management. Needless to say we need data to understand how we are moving the needle on a particular issue, but measuring the wrong thing can have seriously damaging implications for our policy objectives. Stroh (2015) points to a useful example in ‘Systems thinking for social change’ whereby a policy metric to measure, and ultimately reward, homeless shelters for achieving full capacity actually led to an increase in homelessness in one US city. 

We also know that there are huge ‘spill-over or knock-on effects’ from one policy initiative into other areas that might not even be measured. Being able to at least point to these effects gives an indication of where a policy may be affecting an area we hadn’t even thought of. 

“I work on skills - so that’s where I focus. I have no idea what the link is between increased skills attainment and, for example, justice, or climate, or wellbeing. But I imagine there is one. If I could make that link it would really help in making my programme more relevant and higher up the agenda." - Skills policy officer, local authority.  

Who are the actual documents for? 

Policy documents, though possibly over complex, are often glossy, well presented graphical files which have clearly taken thought and time to both write the content and design the presentation. However, as previously stated, who actually reads these cover to cover? Who are they primarily designed for? and what is their purpose? Is it to ‘sell’ the policy to the general public or to colleagues? Or simply to document the process and outcomes of creating the themes and aims within them. If they are for the ‘doers’ are they focusing on one/two pages or digging around in the document for the information they need to enact the policy and if they are for the general public are they too overwhelming to process?

What does a policy look like with different audiences in mind? How do we present it to our political leaders, our ‘doers’ and the general public? How might the public explore how the policy might impact on their life or community? Could community input and iterative design of policy be celebrated and evolve the way in which these documents are updated and kept relevant over their lifespan rather than static documents that gather dust on a shelf or hyperlink.

Of course, there's a few others we could incorporate here, but these six are our starter pack for policy writing and design and seem to validate our hypotheses: 

  • No one reads policy documents from start to finish 

  • Policies are typically built on disparate and unreliable data at the behest of the policy writer (usually a consultant) to prove a point 

  • The most interesting part of a policy for most people is the action plan as it shows the tangible outcome of what is going to happen and the effect it will have. But this is usually tucked away at the end of the document and has few links to the original data.