Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Policy Sleuthing

(After the last few days, it's nice to focus on something else again.)

I just finished another go-round of policy sleuthing. It usually works like this:

A: So it's settled. We'll implement policy x this Fall. Good job, everyone!

B: Wait a minute. Isn't there rule y that forbids implementing something like policy x unless it's a leap year?

A: Really?

C: Yeah, I remember that. Did that pass the Senate?

B: I think so. Remember that huge fight?

D: I still have nightmares about it.

A: (sigh) So can we get a copy of rule y?

B,C,D: (silence)

A: Who would have a copy?

C: I think H might.

(later that week)

A: H, do you have a copy of rule y?

H: Why would I have that?

A: Uh, didn't it pass the Senate?

H: No, that came out of the VP's office. Try that.

(still later)

A: Do you have a copy of rule y?

VP: Rule what?

A: Rule y. The one that forbids implementing something like policy x unless it's a leap year.

VP: (chuckling) Nooooo...

A: Well is there a rule y?

VP: I've never heard of it.

And so it goes. I've seen it before, but somehow, it surprises me every time.

(This is part of why I'm skeptical of many conspiracy theories. They assume a tightness of ship that often just isn't there.)

Over the years, policy sleuthing has led to any number of results. Sometimes the alleged rule actually does exist, but has been intermittently ignored over the years. Sometimes it exists, but in a much narrower form than recently claimed. Sometimes it was proposed but defeated, or proposed but tabled. And sometimes there's just no discernible trace, even though multiple people swear up and down that they remember something about it from several years ago, usually involving somebody pitching a fit.
(The really puzzling part is that the alleged rule is often not in the interest of the person recalling it. So I can't just write it off to wishful thinking or strategic lying.)

I've become a little bolder over the last few years, increasingly calling for a copy of the alleged rule in writing. Sometimes that works, but the ghosts of 'past practice' can be hard to exorcise.

Wise and worldly readers – have you had any particularly weird experiences of policy sleuthing? I'd like to think I'm not alone in this...

You are SO not alone in this. Nicely mapped, and well strategized (as much as it can be strategized).

One equivalent is the "remember the time that failed?" story that also gets weirdly redacted and leaves no evidence besides the enduring flinching and resistance.
No policy sleuthing, but I'm with ya on the conspiracy theories, particularly since I'm a political scientist.
There are also the magic policy manuals in the sky that no one can actually find in writing but swear (and protest) that that is "THE" policy . . . and always has been even if it's something most others involved in the issue have never heard of before.
Hysterical! Would be funnier if it weren't so true. I have been in sooooo many meetings where we had that conversation. We would either find the policy (if it existed) or write a new one replacing the phantom policy. At least that way we could be sure that the memories of fits pitched weren't hallucinations!
Policy sleuthing is the story of my administrative LIFE. You don't know how comforting it is to see your post.

Here's a story from my recent experience. I direct the first-year writing program at my university, and upon starting the job in fall 2007, was told that the rule here is that "international students whose first language is not English are required to take ESOL (in the Dept. of Modern Languages) instead of English." I was/am required to identify students who try to get into English classes and kick them out if they're ineligible.

OK, got it. But, it was added, "if the student is a U.S. citizen or has graduated from a U.S. high school, then we can't make them go to ESOL."

Whatever. I am completely indifferent to the policy; I just want policies to be known by everyone and followed consistently.

Then I started getting calls from advisers (academic support staff) saying that the ESOL classes were all full, and would "I" please let students A B C and X Y Z into English? As if I should have the authority to overturn, unilaterally, what I understood to be a university-level policy. Also, students would come to me having secured special permission from higher-ups to take English classes.

The ESOL coordinator and I both got frustrated, and I called a meeting. I got every administrator I could think of into the room: dean of liberal arts, dept. heads of English and Mod Lang, advising staff, director of the office of international affairs, director of admissions, etc.

In preparation for that meeting, I trawled through drawers and drawers of filing cabinets. I finally found a series of letters from 1979 and 1980, from long-gone administrators, discussing the policy. I made copies and marched into the meeting with them.

The director of admissions explained that the "U.S. high school" and "U.S. citizen" parts of the policy were added after refugees from Vietnam appealed their placement in ESOL.

ANYWAY, supposedly the policy is now finally going into the university catalog. I don't know what will actually happen the next time ESOL fills up, though. They were going to hire an adjunct and open up more sections of ESOL, but with the budget crunch and proposed cutting of adjunct budgets, I am skeptical.
I guess I remain confused.

Everywhere *I* have been (and I mean everywhere) policies have been published. There is an official "place" for policies. That is where one goes to "sleuth."

In the old days, it actually involved reading the policies, but again, every where I have been the policies have been categorized so that one could easily find any and all policies relating to, say HR under the section "HR."

Things are different now. Now the policies are posted on intranets (not to be confused with internets, but I digress.)

With the advent of these, and the introduction of Google search engines to support those self-same intranets (not to be confused with internets, but I digress...) one can now easily search for the phrase "Except for leap year" and find any and every published policy where that phrase is contained.

Fast. Convenient. And logical.

So the response now really should be "You don't think we can do this because of policy? Show me. Burden of proof is on you."

Oh, I might add one other point, and this is one that I know is not lost on DD, as a political science guy...

There is a difference between "policy" and "administrative decision." If the administration has made a decision, and issued that as fiat, then of course the administration can at any time change their decision, again by fiat.

On the other hand, policies tend to be vetted, accepted as governance, and must go through the vetting process for change or correction.

That is why, at the places I have served, we may have "letters" but they are only temporary, pending inclusion in the actual policy, and published in the aforementioned official policy places.
I'm not an administrator, but I am well aware of the problem.

We have a policy document that covers everything from soup to nuts. It is wildly out of date, with important items that were approved by all parties existing as separate documents, not yet incorporated into the actual document. It contains both policy (rules that can only be changed by the Board after blah blah blah) and detailed procedures that change (in fact) all the time.

Some of those specific policies also appear in the catalog, as they impact students. Same problem, although usually fixed in a year or so because that document is more visible and impacts more people on a regular basis. Usually. One rule that impacts some of my students was there, but so badly written that its meaning was obscure. I think it took 5 years to get it to say what they were actually doing. There was no dispute about what they were doing, the relevant group of administrators simply couldn't get it written in clear English.
Yes, yes, yes! And it is just as bad--perhaps worse--all the way down the food chain. Departmental decisions, School or College policies, can all get lost in the wash. When I first arrived at my current location, faculty meeting minutes were sporadic and hard to find, policy documents were not centrally located, and different versions of handbooks and other materials had different approved "policies." It made administration something of a nightmare.

My last experience with this sleuthing related to some decisions the faculty in our administrative unit made last year about an internal process. We argued about it for several faculty meetings and finally made a decision. The decision would change our governance documents. The decision was noted in the minutes, but the governance document was not updated.

I caught the error when I was involved in the process the next year, and I couldn't find the change in our document. I let the powers that be know, and eventually, it was updated.
Let me just say, we all get the government we deserve.

If we don't care enough as faculty and administrators to ensure that relevant documents are updated, then we shouldn't (but will) complain when those documents aren't helpful.
This is right on target. After 24 years in higher ed administration, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There's a tremendous cost to the wheel-spinning that results from our all-too-common failure to follow through on policy development and documentation in general. With this in mind, I strongly urge all Presidents, Provosts, CIOs, CFOs, VPs, AVPs, Deans, Department Heads, Committee Chairs, Senate Presidents, and your exec support staff members to *pay attention to your librarians, archivists, and records managers* when they talk to you about records retention and archival schedules, electronic and otherwise. At the very least, call the archivist before wasting too much time ransacking old file cabinets and hard drives. In many offices, your faithful staff people are routinely sending documents to the archives for preservation in a central place, professionally organized in an objective way so anyone can find them, even if they aren't blessed (or cursed) with idiosyncratic knowledge of the specific issue. What a concept! Along similar lines, if your library hosts an online institutional repository, consider using it as a one-stop shop for policy documents, task force reports, Senate and committee meeting minutes, etc. Here's an example from my institution; still a work in progress but the framework is in place
That is so funny because it is very true.
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