In government, policy is king.  Policy sets the expectation for process, and the parameters for action by any agency, agency head, or line worker. For instance, if the Governor’s panel convenes and then writes a policy statement that the State will “work to promote governmental actions that are transparent”, it means that every State employee must have the reasonable expectation that their work (and emails, texts, etc) will be open to public disclosure.

What policy doesn’t do is tell us how to get there. We want transparent government? How do we make actions easy to view? Does transparency include decision making? What if we want inclusive hiring practices? How do we set that up? What are the definitions of inclusive, or transparent? For either of these stated goals, why are they important, and what purpose do they serve?

It becomes clear upon any in depth analysis that “how” and “why” come BEFORE “what”. And yet, we rarely see this happen. While it should seem self evident that VERBS are how we really get things done, and NOUNS are just the things we use to do them, our language betrays our lack of intent. We spend in public administration a lot of time talking about WHAT and not nearly as much time talking about HOW. Let me use my favorite analogy – pie.

My boss comes in to my office and says he wants me to make a pie. It’s super important, because the Governor (or director, or City council, or whatever) really thinks that what would make our community great is pie. Then he turns around and walks out, and I am left to make a pie.

No one talked about what kind of pie. No one laid clear guidelines about whether the pie would be refrigerated or baked. These require entirely different tools. Does everyone in the community like the same kind of pie? Is cherry pie going to offend some people, and coconut pie offend others? Am I only allowed to make one kind of pie? Is it a french baking technique that’s most suitable, because if so I must determine the order in which the ingredients must be combined and the type of butter to be used…. on and on.

You pexels-photo-205961.jpegdon’t make pie by walking into the kitchen and throwing flour, butter, salt, fruit and sugar in a bowl and calling it pie. That is not pie. That is THE THINGS THAT MAKE PIE. The pie is made through a specific set of actions, processes, and timing that are all determined by the type of pie required. And the type of pie required is different for everyone.

In the same way, a policy of inclusion is NOT in itself inclusion. The set of actions and processes by which we (verb) BUILD inclusive practice is inclusion. Engaged community is not achieved by having five people in leadership meet to talk about (noun) engaged community. It is achieved by ENGAGING (verb) the community in the decisions, actions, and processes that determine the tenor and quality of the communities health.

“Side note/ soapbox: It cannot be overstated that successful democratic governance must actually BE democratic. Over and over, we see policies struggle to achieve successful interventions in the real lives of citizens, perhaps because a policy is a noun. We see the entire apparatus of government outside the electoral process run in hierarchies, with little chance for democratic practice within the system itself. Without the verb, the actual hows and whys being asked and engaged every day, democracy fails. Every time.”

The next time your organization or agency struggles to achieve some policy change, or engages in decision making that excludes the voices and processes of stakeholders, ask yourself this – what kind of pie are we making here? And who decided not to make cake?

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