Policy writing: Everything you need to know

The hows and whys of policy writing, including industry-specific policies for healthcare, law enforcement, corporations, and government agencies.

July 15, 2021

Article highlights:

Policy writing is one of those skills that everyone can sort of do. Anyone who has read enough policies has a general feel for what they look like, and what goes into them. However, policy writing does take some actual knowledge and skill to be able to provide guidance, solve ambiguities, and keep your employees safe and out of legal trouble.

Your policy manual spells out the visions and expectations of your organizational leadership. It provides a standard of behavior and performance for your employees, as well as identify opportunities for improvement. They also share accreditation, licensing, and legal standards that all appropriate personnel are expected to follow. And it can protect you from lawsuits from disgruntled employees, clients, patients, or the general public.

That means policy writing needs to be written with an eye to "what could happen" and not just "what we prefer."

In this article, we'll discuss the complexity and challenges of policy writing, some of your options for writing policies, as well as how to write and develop them. We'll also talk about how to write industry-specific policies and procedures, including healthcare, corporations, law enforcement, and city government. And we'll share a few tools to help with your own policy writing efforts.

The complexity and challenges of writing policies

As we said earlier, policy writing is more than just cobbling together a few best practices or preferences on the part of a particular department head. For example, don't ask people who don't regularly travel or do field work to write work-related travel policies. Your policy writing team should include subject matter experts (SMEs) for each policy topic; in this case, people who travel for work or spend most of their time outside the office.

When you and your policy creation team write policies, they should consider the ramifications to everyone in the organization, and not just rely on their own personal preferences and practices. To that end, effective policies must:

  • Be industry specific. There are some policies that should only apply to your particular industry, such as healthcare or manufacturing. You can't just borrow another company's policies and hope for the best.
  • Be organization specific. Every organization is different in its own way. Your policies and procedures should reflect your organization's individuality.
  • Protect you legally. This is one of the main purposes of a policy and procedure manual, so make sure you consult with attorneys during the writing process.
  • Adhere to accreditation standards, if you’re accredited. Accreditation agencies often provide their own policies, which you can (and should) incorporate into your own manual.

Three options for writing policies and procedures

There are a few options available for writing policies and procedures for your organization.

You can hire an outside consultant to write everything. They probably have some of the most experience and knowledge, especially if they specialize in only one kind of organization or industry. For example, a consultant that specializes in policy writing for law enforcement agencies is going to have in-depth knowledge about your state and maybe even your organization. They'll charge a high price because they have specialized knowledge, but they'll be able to complete everything in a matter of weeks, not months.

You can also engage a combination of organizational leadership and legal counsel. They're the ones with the most in-depth knowledge of the organization's functions and the legal implications of the different policies and procedures you'll be creating. Just be sure to speak to the actual people who work in the different areas. They're the SMEs and the people who actually perform the procedures you're going to write about. 

Finally, if your organization has any kind of accreditation or licensing body, there's a very good chance they will have their own policies and procedures, at least ones that pertain to the particular functions for accreditation compliance. For example, the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Healthcare has set standards that healthcare facilities must follow regarding patient care, education, and technology in order to earn that all-important AAAHC accreditation.

How to write policies

There are a few steps to writing your organization's policies. While what you write will vary from industry to industry, organization to organization, the steps are still the same in almost all cases.

  1. Prioritize a policy list. You likely won't be able to create every policy at once, so you need to prioritize which policies are the most important. Create an order and timeline when they each need to be completed.
  2. Conduct thorough research. Look at your existing policies to see how things are currently done. And look for any new compliance or regulatory issues that will need new policies or require revisions. Look for changes in the laws, governmental regulations, and accreditation standards. And interview employees who deal with the policies on a regular basis.
  3. Create an initial draft. Policy writing means going through several revisions, soliciting feedback and getting questions from stakeholders. Simplify the language and avoid any technical jargon. Don't use a lot of industry-specific terms or anything that could confuse new employees or different employee groups.
  4. Send the draft out for review. Ask for feedback from your subject matter experts, especially if they didn't create the initial draft. Be sure to also talk to legal counsel to ensure you're in legal compliance. And use policy management software that offers audit trail features and version control.
  5. Get final leadership approval. Go to the highest level of leadership that makes sense for each policy. For example, you don't need the CEO to sign off on new policies for cleaning up spills, but you do for workplace harassment or management of proprietary information.

How to develop procedures

Developing new procedures requires almost all the same steps as writing new policies. You need to prioritize which procedures should come first, conduct the research for any accreditation compliance issues, write the initial draft, send it out for review, and so on.

The big difference is it's important to add another step after the initial draft: Validate the procedures.

This is where you make sure the new procedures are easy to understand by seeing them in action. Ask the employees you interviewed for step #2, conduct thorough research, and ask them to review (and even test) the new procedures for you. This way, you can see if you missed something, or if there's a simpler way to explain or complete the steps.

How to write industry-specific policies and procedures

The problem a lot of organizations have with their policies and procedures is that they're often written in a vacuum. Each department feels they should be responsible for certain policies, and they expect every other department to follow their dictum.

Writing the best policies and procedures comes from an intra-departmental effort that involves getting the right people from different departments on the same team. It means getting them the right tools and creating the right processes. And it means getting final approval (and buy-in) from executive leadership.

Different industries will all have different policies and procedures. Even the way they write them will be slightly different, although there are a few principles that are the same, such as those we discussed above. 

Based on our own work with these industries, here are a few items that each industry – healthcare, corporations, law enforcement, and city government – should follow.

Writing policies and procedures in healthcare

  1. Identify experts who can help with the details.
  2. Review regulatory and accreditation standards for all departments and accrediting agencies.
  3. List out ALL procedure steps; don't assume there are any "understood" steps.
  4. Use easy-to-understand language.

Writing policies and procedures best practices for corporations

  1. Identify the most important policies using the 80/20 principle: Which 20% of policies will give you 80% of the results?
  2. Find reliable source material, such as borrowing from sample policies in your industry or through your accrediting agency.
  3. Create a normalized structure for each new policy.
  4. Make sure to track reviews and approvals by committee members as well as executives.

Writing effective policies and procedures in law enforcement

  1. List all policies that address national or state rules, regulations, and laws. Focus on expectations and acceptable behavior.
  2. Make sure you are creating legally defensible policies and procedures. 
  3. Find the balance between moral and legal obligations.
  4. Establish training standards for the appropriate policies and procedures.

Writing consistent policies across the entire city government

  1. Create policies that are simple and easy to understand.
  2. Include leaders and admins from other departments
  3. Establish accountability for policies and consequences for violation.
  4. Creative policies and procedures with public trust in mind. Your policies will be scrutinized by the public more than any other industry in this article.

Regardless of industry, there are 10 policies your organization needs to have in writing. Learn what they are today.

Tools to help you write policies

Just like every other part of policy management, there are tools to help you with areas of policy planning, policy writing, training, and even tracking approvals and signatures. Here are a few of our recommendations.

  • Coggle: Mind-mapping software that lets visual thinkers do a brain dump of information. If you don't think in lists, but think in clusters as different ideas pop into your head, Coggle lets you chart out your ideas, interconnecting them as need be. It also lets several people collaborate, comment, and chat within a document at once. You can add text, links, images, and more with simple drag-and-drop tools.
  • Evernote: The quintessential note taking tool that lets you save notes and share them on different devices and operating systems, even sharing notebooks between several users. You could save articles and samples of policies to your notebook, share it with committee members, and all have access to the same information.
  • Grammarly: The ultimate grammar and spelling checker. You can use their website, a browser plugin, or a plugin for Microsoft Word. You can check grammar, punctuation, and spelling of all your policies and procedures to ensure you don't make a costly mistake
  • Nimbus Screenshot: If you need to take screenshots of your computer to demonstrate step-by-step instructions of certain procedures, Nimbus Screenshot is a free browser plugin that lets you capture screen images and record video images from your browser window.
  • PowerDMS: Of course we're going to mention our own product in our own article! Because PowerDMS can help you with every facet of policy writing. You can use everything from the PowerDMS workflows to collaborating with colleagues and getting buy-in from leadership, to its easy integration with Microsoft Office 365 and Google Drive, to uploading training content and policies from third-parties, such as accreditation agencies and consultants.

Want to learn more?

If you're going to start writing policies and procedures for your own organization, you want to make sure you’re as specific to your industry and organization as possible. Consider the different options for writing policies, including accreditation agencies, leadership and legal counsel, or hiring a consultant.

If you decide to write your own policies and procedures, we've got some additional guidance for you on our website, including which tools can help you with your efforts.

And if you'd just like to see our software in action and to see how it can help with policy writing, you can schedule your demo here.

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