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Policies and procedures are so solidly paired that the words are often used interchangeably. But though the two go hand in hand, policies and procedures are not the same thing. Every organization needs both policies and procedures to run effectively, but distinguishing between them helps organizations run smoothly.

Defining terms

Simply put, policies are the driving principles behind what an organization does, while procedures are step-by-step instructions for specific tasks.

Policies establish an organization’s culture, values, and philosophy. They cover what employees can expect from the organization (employee benefits, vacation policy), what the company expects from employees (code of conduct, confidentiality agreements), and what customers and the community can expect from the organization (customer service policies). Policies promote consistency across the organization and set parameters and direction for decisions, while leaving some room for flexibility.

On a broad scale, policies can serve as mini-mission statements, laying out the reasons an organization operates the way it does and establishing how to measure success. Policies must come before and lead into procedures—employees need to know why they are being asked to do something before being told how to do it.

Procedures focus in on particular routine tasks, making sure every employee knows the proper process. While policies can be flexible, procedures are rigid, documenting a course of action that is the same every time. For example, the procedure for filing a report might cover where to access the correct document, what information to include and how and where to file the report. Laying this out clearly ensures that reports don’t get duplicated, mislabeled or misplaced.

Managing policies and procedures

Policies and procedures should be living, changing documents. Policies need to be regularly updated and added to as the organization grows. Procedures may shift when the organization adopts new technology or employees discover a more efficient method to perform a task.

Updating policies should be a collaborative process, involving leaders, employees from all levels of the organization and representatives from other groups who will be influenced by the policies. Policies should be easy to understand, consistent and practical. A policy management software such as PowerDMS can help distribute new or updated policies to every member of the organization. But along with collecting signatures on the documents, leaders need to work to actively incorporate the values behind the policies into the culture of the organization.

Documenting procedures, on the other hand, can be delegated to department heads with hands-on experience. Along with cataloging procedures—through powerpoints or instruction videos—in a document management software for easy reference, leaders should teach procedures through training.

Every organization needs both policies and procedures to function well. Procedures should naturally flow out of policies, but it’s crucial for leaders to know the difference between the two. Adopting a policy management software such as PowerDMS can help organizations keep policies and procedures updated, so employees know what’s expected of them both on a large scale and in day-to-day practices.

Download this free, comprehensive resource on developing constitutional policies for your law enforcement agency.