Who Makes Policies?

Discussing policies in libraries is always an interesting endeavour. Usually, we discuss the ways in which we make policies, meant for the good, that harm our patrons. A library makes many other policies which affect staff, and can eventually affect users, in ways that can be even more damaging than a wayward food and drink or fines policy. There are three main ways that bad policies are born: they spring forth with much thought but are never revisited (though it is obvious to most that it was faulty from the beginning or has become so over time), they are created as reactions to one incident, or they spring forth from the mind of a single person, without consultation or knowledge of how this policy might effect the organization. I am going to talk about the latter.

This person always means well. They want something to happen, some action to be standardized, to make the institution a better place on the inside and for the institution to be perceived well on the outside. They make a flaw along the way, however, which results in either the total breakdown of the policy or the policy being rigorously enforced in a population that has become unruly. The flaw they make is to not solicit advice or to create a committee to discuss the ramifications of a policy.

Regardless of size or structure, oligarchy or democracy, it is never a good idea for one person to mandate policy with no guidance from the minions below. When this kind of mandation occurs, the peasants erupt and eventually the king loses his head. This beheading is easily avoided by simply asking people what they think and then listening to the words coming out of their mouths in a thoughtful manner. A single question and concerned listening are sometimes all it takes to tip the scales in the direction of a policy.

The concerns of the masses have to be taken with great weight. The masses are the ones that must understand and enforce the policy. It must make sense to them or they will be ambivalent or hostile, depending on the amount of pressure from above. If a large number of your very intelligent staff is grousing loudly about a policy, dismissing them out of hand or coming up with some inane excuse for their behavior is a very bad idea. Remember that these are people that you think are smart and thoughtful. Why would they consider this particular policy faulty? When you asked them, did you actually listen and try to understand? Are there tangible ways that their concerns can be addressed?

If a policy is created, by a committee of one, and is then rigorously enforced in an organization, regardless of valid concerns shown by the other members from all levels of the structure, resentment and breakdown will occur. It is inevitable. There should never, ever be one person, regardless of rank, making decisions without thought for other members’ concerns. What will result is on ongoing, ugly battle which causes members or staff to lose heart which in turn will affect both their output and their service to users.

I know that leaders must often make tough decision. That is what leaders are created for and asked to do, but a good leader, a fine leader, makes decisions after they have listened to many people whom that decision will affect.

This post is not the reaction to any one instance or ongoing battle. It is just something that has been rolling around in my head. I am a lowly peasant who hates mandates being given to me. I have a big mouth and a lot of opinions and I expect my leaders to listen to me. I can point to numerous situations in which the policy was given on high, in my life, professional organizations, and even in MOPW. Policy mandating happens, sometimes regardless of good intentions, but we should be aware when it is happening and strive to curtail its negative effects.

If you are a higher up, with power, in an organization, use your power for good and not evil. Listen to people and try to understand. We just want to have a say.

–Jane, this blog is the only place she gets the final say

One thought on “Who Makes Policies?

  • June 30, 2006 at 2:35 pm
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    As someone who has been a library director for over fifteen years, your post struck a chord (Bb major, I think). You are absolutely right that it is essential that policy development be done ground up — with those who have the greatest stake in the problem that you’re trying to solve, or who will be on the frontline of trying to enforce it, intimately involved with developing policy. When that works the way it should, the director’s job is to just try to be sure that every necessary question has been asked, that every unintended consequence has been considered (never foolproof, of course), and that we have a decent consensus.

    Of your three setting for the birth of bad policies, the one I consider more insidious, however, is the second one — creating policy to do with one particular situation. On any given day there are going to be things that happen that drive people nuts and create frustration and rippling angst through the organization. Someone is always there to say “We Need A Policy On This!!”. Part of my job is to say, “Why? Maybe we just need to try to use good judgment on these wierd situations that only show up rarely.” Policies are important, so that we can have consistency in how we treat people — but they’re never a replacement for good people exercising good judgment and knowing when to break the rules.

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