Does your association suffer from policy clutter? One of the perennial headaches that is shared amongst association staff is that of creating and maintaining excessive operating policies. Colleagues invest a great deal of time and energy in designing and enforcing workplace policies, but often they prove to be utterly extraneous, being of little or no benefit to the organisation, its staff, or its membership. These policies are usually implemented with the best intentions of promoting office standards and workplace practices, but in reality they are simply redundant, disproportionate to the size and scope of the association and completely unrelated to best practice in association management.

I’m not suggesting that operational policy is superfluous: all associations require rules to ensure legal and regulatory compliance, to promote and protect staff welfare, and to inform colleagues of expected workplace culture. Operating policies are not unnecessary but there can be a lot of unnecessary operating policies, often determined by completely well-meaning Boards, who are simply unfamiliar with the practicalities of association management:

During a routine review of one of my association’s management accounts, I recall one of the Directors asking me to account for £300 I’d spent on a new computer for the office. I explained that one of our older machines was broken and so I’d replaced it. A seemingly ordinary straightforward decision, one of dozens I made daily as Chief Executive. Wrong! The Director wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to see our “equipment purchasing policy” to ensure I’d followed due process.

Now, I had followed agreed process, albeit not by using an equipment purchasing policy. I used our Financial Regulations, which delegated authority to me for single purchases up to £10,000, and I followed our Procurement Policy, which outlined the decision-making procedures for purchasing goods and services. For a £300 computer, the process was simple: It was broken and we needed a replacement. Multiple, third-party quotes weren’t necessary, no selective tendering exercise was needed, and no second signatory was required. We had contingency funds available for this type of purchase and I made the decision accordingly. We were, after all, only eight members of staff. Our equipment register constituted eight PCs, two printers, a photocopier, and a coffee machine. Why on earth would we need an equipment purchasing policy?

“But that’s what I would expect any university to have in place” was the Director’s response. And therein lay the problem.

Ours was an association that operated within the university sector but we were not a university. Association management is not the same as that of the profession which the association represents, but because Directors are typically elected from the membership, they understandably bring with them and seek to apply their own experience of organisational management, which can be completely out of context.

Fashioning and enforcing policy for policy’s sake does not improve organisational performance. Nor does it enhance transparency or scrutiny of decision-making. It merely sends the message to staff that policy is more important than people, which is demoralising and far more damaging than any potential £300 overspend on an equipment budget. As a matter of course, as part of Directors’ induction, senior staff should seek to acquaint their Board with the basic principles of good association management, and in my case, through active dialogue and a simple Board training session on policy management, we dispensed with the proposition of yet another layer of needless operating procedure.

Management teams and/or Boards should also review their policy portfolios regularly and challenge the legitimacy of some of their more marginal procedures. Colleagues should question if policy directly relates to and benefits the association, or whether it is really just imitating Directors’ own workplace practices or perceived best practice. Dispensing with excessive operational policy and removing the administrative burden of maintaining and adhering to gratuitous procedure will inevitably realise operational efficiencies in terms of freeing-up time and resources, and perhaps more significantly, it will serve to boost staff morale and team energy by removing the restraints of cumbersome process and unwarranted procedure.

First published for the Canadian Society of Association Executives, May 2017.