Musings on Policy

Article excerpt

Dean Atchison once wrote that "the purpose of memos is seldom, if ever, to inform the reader. Rather, they are almost always intended to protect the writer." I think the same could be true for much of the policy development activity that occurs in human services today. So much of the policy work is focused on federal rules compliance and program protection that we sometimes run the risk of overlooking our primary purpose of helping clients achieve better outcomes.

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Over the past couple of years, APHSA's National Policy Council, which comprises state CEOs, has been working on a more proactive approach in identifying social issues, establishing policy priorities and developing formal policy positions that will strategically guide us toward achieving our program goals. Effective legislative relations are a core competency of APHSA, and I often hear from our members that it is one of the functions that they value most about the association. However, moving from a primary focus that includes legislative tracking, analysis, informing and commenting to actually proposing and promoting new legislation requires different tools and skill sets. As we move toward this activity in preparation for a new administration in Washington, we have spent considerable staff time in aligning our resources and identifying those elements that contribute to more effective public policy development. I would like to share some of our observations with you.

First, it is important to make the distinction between compliance and policy development. In either case, however, policy must be grounded in operational reality. Ultimately, policy is what you do, not what you write. Therefore, policy should be an operational tool, and effective communication between policy and practice functions is essential to good programming. This implies a participatory process involving all parties affected by the change. Based on my observations, too often critical functions such as training, evaluation, finance and information system changes are an afterthought to a good policy idea, and not a primary consideration. I would contend that if you can't teach it, account for it, measure it or automate it, policy expectations are unlikely to be met.

Second, policy should be data driven to the extent possible, both in terms of making the case for change and in evaluating effectiveness. A former policy colleague of mine used to declare "In god we trust, but for all else give me data." Recent events in TANF and child welfare have demonstrated the perils of relying primarily on federal data reporting to define program success. …