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The Policy Language Tree

By Kenneth Nelson February 22, 2012

(First published in the January-February 2012 issue of Board Leadership, available to subscribers electronically at publication.)

Analogies are never perfect but they can help (see John Carver’s “On a Personal Note” in issue 118 of Board Leadership). Here, Kenneth Nelson, a former director for a large Alaskan corporation with both social and for-profit goals, and currently the manager of a bioenergy company working to develop carbon-neutral machinery for the green economy, helps to illuminate our understanding of the architecture of Policy Governance policies by using a tree analogy.

The Policy Language Tree

The Policy Governance Language Tree was devised as a way to write and interpret policy language consistent with Policy Governance principles. Practitioners will recall the nested bowl principle, which allows a board to add increasing detail to any policy in a decisions-within-decisions format. Using this format, the board can maintain direct control over its own broader-level policy statements and indirect control over its delegates’ more specific decisions that sit within its statements. Use of the tree diagram helps practitioners maintain focus on writing policy when more detail is desired beyond a level 1, global policy statement.

For example, imagine looking at a small group of trees. Perhaps there is one of each of four species—let’s say apple, cherry, ash, and oak. The four categories in Policy Governance could each be considered a tree of a separate species. But no matter what the species, each tree has a trunk that is rooted to the ground and could not exist without that single level 1 foundation.

From each tree trunk, we can see main branches grow representing level 2 and the beginning of topic-specific policy statements such as financial condition, budgeting, and treatment of staff.

And on we can go to look at subbranches (level 3 policies) off the main branches and then further subbranches (level 4 policies), and so on.

The point of this exercise is that in the same way that the trunk of each species (policy category) of tree is dissimilar, so are the branches. Each trunk gives birth to branches, which may produce smaller branches. But all branches relate only to the species or subject matter of the trunk. Moreover, not only do some trees divide all the way into twigs, but on each tree, some branches grow twigs and some do not. In Policy Governance, the board creates the “trunk” policy in all categories, but how many branches, smaller branches, or twigs are produced (and, subsequently, narrower policies) is dependent only on the board’s values.