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Writing About Policies, Rules, and Guidelines

Introduction

If you have been thinking about writing a policy, rule, or guideline for a specific topic but don't know how to get started and you don't think of yourself as a writer, this website will serve as a guide to help you formulate ideas and write a well-constructed new policy or revise an existing one. It provides helpful tips on how to:

  • Gather background information.
  • Draft the language.
  • Conduct a review and get final approval.
  • Communicate the policy to the community.

The word policy is used throughout this site. However, when specific considerations for a policy versus a rule or guideline arise, the appropriate terms are used.

As you go through this process, let us know how you're doing. Contact us if you need help. 

Gather background information

As you begin, think about why you need a policy, who will be affected by this policy, and who will need to approve the new or revised policy.

Why do you need to have a new or revised policy?

  • What is the problem or issue(s) that made you realize you need a policy?
  • How would a policy assist customers (faculty, staff, students) in using your services?
  • How will your policy clarify how IS&T does its business?
  • Will any costs be involved in implementing this policy?
  • Is there any other related document that you want to refer to or incorporate in your policy?

Note: The above information does not have to appear in your policy, but it will confirm for you whether or not you really need a policy.

What best addresses your issues? a policy, a rule, or a guideline?

Before you draft the language, think about how you will present your information--as a policy, as a rule, or as a guideline. Here are some tips to help you decide what is best suited for your issues.

MIT Policy is the most formal approach for resolving issues. As described on the MIT Policy website, these policies

"state the principal policies and procedures that guide MIT faculty and staff members in the pursuit of Institute objectives and in relations with the community at large. It is also designed to acquaint new faculty and staff members with the organization and aims of the Institute and with their obligations and benefits."

These policies are often of an institutional scope, are highly visible, and are approved by the Academic Council. Sanctions for violation of MIT Policy vary, but may lead to suspension and expulsion.

One of MIT's policies is the Policy on the Use of Information Technology. It is MIT's official written communication on technology and is owned by IS&T.

Take a look at the MIT policy and decide whether or not your issues are adequately addressed in it. If you think your issues are not fully addressed, you should recommend modifications to it by contacting the VP of IS&T, owner of this policy.

If they are fully addressed, you may only need to clarify your issues by writing a rule or a guideline.

  • Rule: If sanctions for not doing the right thing will be involved with your issue, you should write a rule. While less formal than a policy, a rule defines acceptable behavior. It is departmentally based, but may impact the entire institution. It is visible to those using the services of the rule-making department and is approved by departmental management. Sanctions range from education to loss of services.
  • Guideline: If sanctions are not involved and you want to suggest some ways of complying with your issue, you should write a guideline. A guideline is a suggested way of doing something with a product or service scope. It is visible to those using or supporting the use of a particular product or service, has no rigorous approval mechanism, and there are no sanctions if the guideline is not followed.

Tip: Your decisions here about what you need will help you later when you are writing the draft and including language about sanctions.

Who will be impacted by this policy?

At some point in the development of a policy, you're going to have to notify everyone who will need to abide by or enforce/administer the policy.

Tip: The list below defines the core people in the MIT community who will need to be informed of the new policy.

Customers

  • Who will need to abide by the policy?
  • Will this policy apply to the entire community, or a formal subset? For example:
    • just registered students
    • just graduate students
    • just on-campus housing residents
    • just independent living group residents
    • just faculty and staff
    • just faculty
    • just employees
  • Will this policy apply to users of a given product/service, regardless of their affiliation? For example:
    • just users of Microsoft Windows machines
    • just Athena public cluster users
    • just electronic mail account holders
    • just registered network users
  • Do they have an existing formal customer relationship with IS&T?

Service providers

  • Who are the product and/or service providers (teams) within IS&T that will administer this policy?
  • Are there multiple teams? How will these teams coordinate the administration of the policy?

Tip: Service providers and reviewers will later be involved in the review process.

Approvers

  • Who will approve this policy?
    •  The VP of IS&T has the final say in what IS&T rules are put forth, even though these rules may originate elsewhere in the IS&T team structure.
    •  Guidelines, which typically are developed within a team, are approved by the team after appropriate consultation with key staff and leaders around IS&T.
  • What teams are responsible for the product and/or service area that is impacted by this policy?
    •  Are these the same teams that are responsible for the content and accuracy of the information in this policy?
    •  Are these the same teams that will be considered the policy owner, or does ownership reside elsewhere?
    •  Are these same teams considered the source of the authority for this policy, or does that authority reside elsewhere, a Practice or a Process?

Draft the language

Now that you have your information, you are ready to write a draft.

Who will write the draft?
Don't assume that the team's content expert should be the person to write the draft. Find out who is the most experienced writer on your team (could be the content expert) and ask that person to write the first draft. The first draft is important because it sets the tone you want to present for the policy.

What should be included in the draft?
Here are some suggestions to help you write your draft.

  • Create a brief outline of the topics you want to cover.
  • State clearly what your customer can and cannot do.
  • Explain how to correct an action.
  • Include any terms that might be confusing to the customer and provide definitions.
  • If appropriate, list any special circumstances in which this policy would not apply.
  • If appropriate, include any time constraints, e.g., does this policy apply only at the end of the term, or only at student registration time?
  • Include the following information:
    • the date the policy was written or revised
    • the date the policy will be effective
    • the name of the department that created the policy
    • the name of the person who will approve the policy

How do you write about sanctions?

Rules should include a range of sanctions from the most serious, ultimate consequence to a general warning. Sometimes, a policy has progressive discipline actions. For example, policy language can list the situation: for the first offense, you will receive sanction 1, for the second offense, you will receive sanction 2, etc. Your policy language should state that the sanctions are enforced and are in the best interest of the service provider and the larger community.

Guidelines provide for the best interest of the individuals and do not contain sanctions.

Review and get final approval

It's time to send the draft out for review.

  • Send the draft to the appropriate reviewers and let them know that this is a draft and that their comments are welcomed.
  • If you receive comments that are confusing, unclear, or contradict other's points of view, consider conducting a face to face meeting to review all the comments. That way, you will ensure that everyone has heard all the suggested changes and has agreed on the revised wording.
  • Incorporate the comments and be sure you indicate these changes.
  • Circulate the draft again until everyone agrees on the wording.
  • Send the policy to the approver(s) for a final approval.

Communicate to the community

You have final approval for your policy and are ready to make it public. Here are some questions to help you plan for making the policy public.

  • How do you want to promote this policy?
  • TechTalk, The Tech, spotlight on the MIT Home page, IS&T newsletter, forums, visits to departments or living groups, general information sessions, quick starts, direct mail, campus-wide email?

  • What is the timing for this policy?

  • Depending on the breadth and impact of the policy, you might choose different strategies. For example, if the timing is immediate, or if the policy affects the entire community, you want the policy to be seen and read immediately and communicated through every possible medium. On other hand, if the policy needs attention only at certain times during the academic year, your communication strategy could be less immediate and urgent.