Policy Design

It is all too easy to forget that our policies have to be understood and implemented by somewhat reluctant or uninterested colleagues and members of the public.  Here are some thoughts on guidance material and ensuring compliance with new protocols and other rules.

The Need for Good Guidance

Whether we are designing a public policy, or a policy to be followed by others in our company or organisation, it is vital to remember that very few people read guidance material, however well written. New procedures, laws and regulations therefore need to be easy to understand, and clearly communicated, including via the media, if they are to be generally accepted and easily enforced. The main purpose of detailed guidance material should be to answer questions about the application of the new rules to non-standard situations.

We must therefore design policies that are easily communicated. Furthermore, presentation needs to be considered right at the beginning of the policy process, not near the end, for - as noted above - policies that are hard to understand, and hard to defend, are generally flawed. The time to think about this is before you choose your policy option, not right at the end of the process. Plenty of company bosses have found that their staff can be amazingly resistant to change. So explanatory material, White Papers, consultation documents etc. should make it crystal clear how each proposal will make life better for customers, voters, business or other sectors.

See also my advice on effective communication on the Understanding the Civil Service website. Much of it applies equally to the private and other sectors.


It is vital that compliance and enforcement issues are considered before any decisions are made about the scope and nature of any new policies and regulations. The initiative can be well-meant, but it will quickly fall into disrepute if it meets resistance and has to be policed in an obtrusive way, or if the cost of its enforcement is out of proportion to its benefit. Regulations should always be transparent, targeted, consistent, and in proportion to the risk, and the regulator must be publicly accountable.

In the case of risk regulation, compliance is often best assured by providing incentives to encourage those causing the risk to change their behaviour. Where possible, therefore, the cost or impact of the policy should fall upon the person or entity causing the risk, not the person suffering it. If that is not possible then any numerical targets (e.g. for local enforcement bodies) should be concerned with reductions in the occurrence in the risk (e.g. fewer outbreaks of food poisoning) rather than increases in enforcement action (e.g. numbers of prosecutions). And don’t make it obligatory for small firms to keep papers for 40 years – and, yes, such a regulation did recently exist.

Watch out, by the way, for the implications for middle class journalists. For instance, when designing policies affecting employees, think carefully about their impact on au pairs. Or when changing education policy, how will it affect Montessori schools? You attack the freedom of the press at your peril!

Finally, make sure that your solution can be implemented by those who have not been immersed in the issue in the way that you have been. Don’t design systems which are subtle, clever or difficult to understand, and don’t plan staff numbers and implementation timetables on the basis that all involved will be geniuses. Also, make sure that your solution is understood by those at whom it is aimed. Research can help, of course. The Business Department, investigating ineffective product warnings, found that many young people could not define the word ‘fatal’. A new warning ‘solvent abuse can kill suddenly’ was substituted.


Spotted something wrong?
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