One Single Policy or Many?

Do we want to have one single big policy or a bunch of smaller ones? I hear this question discussed a lot: people trying to debate whether a good policy is a single, all-inclusive, totally exhaustive tome containing all the relevant statements on a particular subject, versus whether the right approach is to create several smaller policy documents each with their own subject.

The correct answer? It doesn’t matter. When it comes to authority, applicability, or enforcement, the question is irrelevant. Totally irrelevant.

That’s right, whether or not we serve the pie whole, or cut it into two or ten or 24 pieces, we still have the same amount of pie. (Hence the old joke: the customer telling the pizza maker to be sure to cut the pizza into six pieces, because he can’t eat eight pieces.)

We want our policies to be coherent, integrated, unified, and comprehensive. We want the individual policy statements not to conflict with one another. We want to eliminate duplication, and achieve clarity and succinctness. Those are all good goals.

At the end of the day we may find that we have 400 unique policy statements. Whether we take those 400 statements and package them into one, two, or any number of boxes doesn’t change the fact that we have 400 statements, each of which should be unique and non-conflicting. If you wanted to, you could have 400 distinct documents, each with one statement, and you would still have exactly the same policy regime.

When it comes to process, however, there’s no question that the larger the policy instrument, the longer it takes to get approved. If you break your policy statements into ten documents, and there’s a problem with one policy statement in one document, the other nine can still move ahead while you sort out the problem.

The number of policies you have is most relevant when you look at the ease of discoverability: can people find what they need? With 400 statements, you need some system in place to help people pick out specific sections, no matter how many documents they are scattered through.

The more important question is what navigational tools are going to accompany the policy. You will most often need guidance documentation for the average reader, to help them understand what the policy statements mean and how to apply them. That guidance document can be a single, all-encompassing document, if you want it that way.

But the policies themselves? Have as many as you need to. Break them down into manageable chunks. Aim for efficiency, not symmetry.

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