How outdated policies and procedures kill innovation
SEVERAL years ago, Jason Roberts, from the Build a Better Block Project, was invited by the City of Surrey to speak about ways to revitalize a neighbourhood. Roberts was asked to speak as he had direct experience in creating new life and activity into a rundown neighbourhood in Dallas, Texas.
As the Build a Better Block website notes, “The area was filled with vacant properties, wide streets, and few amenities for people who lived within walking distance. The group brought together all the resources from the community and converted the block into a walkable, bikeable neighborhood destination for people of all ages complete with bike lanes, cafe seating, trees, plants, pop-up businesses, and lighting.”
The process wasn’t easy. Roberts spoke about attending city council meetings, where eventually he discovered there were old city laws that limited community gatherings within the neighbourhood. He dug further and learned the laws had first been enacted around the 1950s and 1960s, for the purpose of keeping African-Americans from gathering together during a time this population was pushing for their civil rights. Therefore, a law designed to keep African-Americans from protesting nearly 60 years prior was now making it impossible for coffee shops to have outdoor seating outside at their establishments!
All these years this racist law had remained in effect, despite it no longer making any sense. And until Roberts came around, no one had questioned it. A rule is a rule after all – we assume it’s there for a reason. And that’s why we have so many of them, yet it’s also why so little seems to get done.
In my years in government, academia and non-profits, I have seen plenty of policies and procedures that absolutely make no sense, yet we follow them as if they are set in stone and created by some higher power. What I have noticed is that while policies and procedures are often created as a knee-jerk reaction to an event or anticipated event (like the aforementioned example, out of a fear of African-Americans gathering to fight for their civil rights), there is really no one tasked to review such policies and procedures, so they often far outlive their purpose. Sometimes their purpose wasn’t even all that clear to begin with.
When policies and procedures are created in a knee-jerk manner, which in my experience is how they typically are created, they tend to be quite sweeping and have many unintended consequences. For example, say someone gets hurt due to some workplace incident. Those in charge need at the very least show they are addressing the issue, so they devise ways to prevent that incident from happening again – yet they end up preventing many positive outcomes too.
So, social service offices become like fortresses, people are not able to do work outside the office (as it’s presumed safest inside the office), the work becomes more restrictive (because giving employees too much discretion to do the jobs as they see fit leads to, in a ‘risk managers’ view, too much risk).
Ultimately such policies and procedures lead to low employee satisfaction, more turnover, greater absenteeism and frankly does little to reduce risk (often the ‘incident’ that instigated the new policies and procedures was a fluke, one-in-a-million event, and the truth is no amount of ‘risk management’ can prevent entirely). So out of fear of a 1% chance of something happening, we have pages and pages of counter-productive and often useless policies and procedures.
And it doesn’t stop there. Risk managers, especially in government, are not concerned with effectiveness of work. If an employee, such as a government social worker, has two ways to approach their job, and one method has a 5% ‘risk’ (whatever that may look like, such as being injured or making the organization they work for potentially look bad) and a 95% chance of positive outcomes for the client they work with, and the other option has a 3% risk and only a 5% chance of a positive outcome, I bet the risk manager will go for the second option every time. Again, their job is to minimize risk, not look at the overall effectiveness of their job.
Unfortunately for our most vulnerable populations, in health care, education, criminal justice and social services we have too many risk managers who are great at their jobs.
Gary Thandi, MSW RSW, Doctor of Education candidate, is a Special Columnist with The VOICE. He writes about emotional wellness and social justice issues as they relate to South Asian communities. He is also head of Moving Forward Family Services that provides counselling and support services to anyone who wants it – without any waits. No one, regardless of their financial circumstances, will be turned away. Services are offered in English, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Cantonese, Farsi, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese. To access services, call or text 778-321-3054 or email him at: