Former Michigan Governor, Jennifer Granholm, recently mentioned on CNN the old maxim that “personnel is policy.” She stressed the idea that staffing leadership positions in government is crucial because of all the day-to-day decisions these people make, and “those small decisions are what bend the arch of policy.”
Indeed, this does seem to describe how much of the world works today. We elect or hire people because we like them or their affiliations or their background, then we make a lot of assumptions, and hope it all works out.
Most organizations strive for a higher level of sophistication beyond simply hiring good people and trusting they will generate the right results. For example, boards of directors typically create written policies, strategic plans, and issue directives that require implementation and reporting.
These efforts are laudable, but not without challenges. For example, if the leader or governing body focuses solely on generating the overall strategic direction and delegating the implementation of that direction, how can anyone truly know that all of the smaller, day-to-day decisions align with the strategy and “tone at the top”? Alternatively, what if the leadership sets the strategic direction and then proceeds to make or require approval of all of the detailed, tactical decisions as well? How quickly could results be achieved, and, by the way, do you know many people who enjoy being micromanaged?
Ms Granholm rightly recognizes that multiple little decisions add up to bigger decisions, values, or policy. Unfortunately, the resulting “policy” is created in a random, incoherent, unclear way, and is buffeted by personalities, situations, and “politics.” For good governance to occur, the order of things should be reversed: in consultation with the source of their authority and taking into account good information, leaders should create policy first, have a way of delegating the realization of that policy, and then see to it that the desired results are achieved. In effect, a good governance system should ensure that the bigger values or decisions drive all of the smaller decisions, that results match stated expectations, and this all happens not by chance but by design.
Policy is Policy
The good news is that such an approach exists. Policy Governance – in use by boards and leaders around the world – is a framework of principles that enables people to govern effectively, to be accountable, and to achieve relevant results. Policy Governance makes policy a very meaningful and practical tool, and takes the guesswork out of the usual process of hiring and trusting people to do what you expect them to do.
Yes, people are important, and, now we no longer need to feel bound by the “personnel is policy” concept or believe that policies set at a high level are always going to be ignored or subject to the vagaries of day-to-day decisions. Policy is policy, and Policy Governance principles illustrate how to use policy to great effect.