Policies and procedures are in place for a reason. These materials guide staff and other personnel through important, sometimes complex protocols.

But if those policies and procedures are poorly communicated? Confusion and misguidance can ensue. In that instance, they become a risk in and of themselves.

That’s why it’s so important to communicate them clearly – from the get-go.

Policies vs procedures

The first step to creating clear and concise policies and procedures is to keep both forms of documents separate and distinct.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

At a glance, a policy lays out the theory of how a council operates. Whereas a procedure deals with the practical elements.

Here are some key defining features of each.

A policy:

  • Details a council’s rules for the management of an activity or asset at a high level
  • Has very limited instruction
  • Is usually no longer than a double-sided A4 page (though strategic policies can exceed this)

And a procedure:

  • Describes the specific, actionable approach a council must take to manage an activity or asset
  • Relates directly to a policy
  • Must have a method of recording compliance

It’s vital that both of these documents are as distinct as possible, so that they’re easy to refer to.

The importance of plain English

Part of any manager’s role is to ensure policies and procedures are followed to a T. Because when they aren’t followed, things can get messy.

That’s why it’s so important that all information in them is laid out clearly and concisely – in a language that anybody can understand.

In recent years, the push for ‘plain language’ has become a movement across both the private and public sectors. In simple terms, it involves putting difficult concepts into, well, simple terms.

That means avoiding jargon, keeping sentences short and, above all, avoiding big words and wordy phrasing.

Policies and procedures need to be widely and readily understood. That means writing them so clearly that a ten-year-old could get their head around them.

Language and visuals must go hand-in-hand

While language use plays a large part in reader comprehension, it’s not the only tool we have up our sleeves.

Visual communication and document design are also instrumental in getting your message across.

Both documents can (and should) make use of dot points, tables, flowcharts, diagrams and checklists where useful.

So, consider using whatever visual aids that may be necessary to convey your message as clearly as possible.

Best practices for creating policies and procedures

Now you understand the key differences between the two forms of documents, as well as how language and visuals aid reader comprehension. Next, let’s look at some general rules to follow when writing guidance material:

  1. We’ve covered this, but it bears repeating: Be sure to write so that anyone – senior staff, council supervisors, external regulators, auditors – can understand the document.
  2. Assume that the person reading the document has no prior knowledge of what you want to tell them.
  3. Understand, at an organisational level, what specific information belongs in the policy and/or procedure you’re working on.
  4. Consult with staff at all levels during development.

Follow these, and your policies and procedures will be easy to understand and act on.

And that means that everyone on staff, regardless of their role or level of seniority, will be on the same page.

An example: policy & procedure in action

A local citizen has advised your council of a tree that’s in danger of falling, which is posing a risk to public safety.

1) As a first step, you will refer to your policy to determine if you have responsibility for the tree and what those responsibilities are.

2) If your council is responsible for managing the tree, you will refer to your procedures for tree inspections, pruning and removal.

3) If removing the tree is recommended, your ‘Tree removal procedure’ will advise you on what actions need to be taken. These will detail the equipment required (chainsaws, EWP’s, woodchippers, bobcat, etc) and further guidance to manage the risks. Importantly they will also outline how the area will be remediated once the tree is removed.

Getting your team on the same page

In the interest of ensuring policies and procedures are followed in the long term, there are a couple more areas you might consider investing in.

The first? Ensuring your council’s style guide is up to date.

Every council should have one, although some might not have been updated in quite some time. It’s worth ensuring that your style guide will, when followed, make it easy for anyone in your council to produce clear documentation – consistently.

Secondly, you need to ensure that council staff understand how to use this guide, and how to follow it. One way to do this is to invest in training your staff in plain English and business communications.

When staff are aware of the importance of clear and concise policy and procedures, and are equipped with the know-how to produce them? You’re protecting your council from the myriad of risks that can arise from complex and confusing guidance materials.

Looking for further information on policy and procedure writing? Contact your Statewide Mutual Risk Manager for friendly help and advice.

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