Developing a Policy Agenda

Developing a Policy Agenda

For the purposes of this guidance, an agency’s policy agenda is the sum of written, public positions about how child welfare will implement its practice model. It includes the authority under which it exists, how it is funded and obligations and responsibilities of all parties. The positions take various forms, generally along a continuum from least to most prescriptive and restrictive, from statute to guidance. They derive from a variety of sources including federal, state and local legislation and regulation and gubernatorial and agency executive directives and guidance.

Defining Policy

An agency will want to define how the term “policy” and the function of “policy making” is used in their particular agency and/or jurisdiction. Policy and policy formulation can be defined differently depending upon the level in an organization (e.g. central versus field) and upon the situation. Some agencies define policy expansively, as does this guidance, while others apply a more narrow definition that is based on mandatory obligations derived only from federal or state and local legislative action or federal regulation. Lack of clarity will generally result in uneven implementation or results as different parts of the organization respond to “policy” in different ways.


Assignment of Responsible Office/Staff

Directors need to identify clearly the unit or staff responsible for the overall development and implementation of a policy agenda, including who represents the agency in legislative and budgetary processes. Left to chance, policymaking is often fragmented, short-sighted and not well-aligned with an agency’s strategic plan. Decision-making vests with the director and/or his senior team, but responsibility for ensuring rigorous analysis and overall direction needs to reside with a single entity that enjoys the respect of and access to decision makers.


Assess the Current Policy Landscape

Agencies with a well-articulated policy agenda generally review all policies and other guidance at least annually. Some use the budget cycle or strategic planning process as an opportunity to do a comprehensive assessment. Most critically, the agency needs to assess whether current policy is helping or hindering staff in implementing its practice model. Are technical “fixes” required in statutes or regulations? Are some policies routinely ignored or are staff members doing “work arounds?” Are there new federal or state mandates in child welfare or related fields, (e.g. mental health) that require new or reworked policies? Have there been unintended consequences? Do policies square with funding obligations? Have priorities from the governor, legislature or county executives and boards changed, thus requiring agency changes? Do recommendations from oversight bodies require policy changes?


Identify Guiding Principles

The executive director or senior team need to set forth principles or criteria that guide the drafting and implementation of all policy or other guidance. That is, the “tests” the policy must meet to be approved. Each agency will have some principles particular to its jurisdiction and operating environment, but there are several that can be considered universal to the field.

o Strategic Alignment: This principle asks whether a policy honors the agency’s vision and values and strategic objectives overall. It is a “first order” obligation and serves an additional purpose of managing multiple and potentially conflicting expectations. It also helps minimize the potential of writing policy that responds to the crisis of the day or a fringe or outlier issue.


Cultural Competency

This is a foundational obligation that is ost often referenced in an agency’s practice model. It is, however, a criteria that all other policies need to be measured against.



Many agencies will identify benevolence as one of their values. If not, all child welfare policies need to be tested against the criteria of kindness and compassion. Does the proposed policy assume everyone’s good intention and goodwill, most particularly in those situations fraught with the potential for conflict and punitive response?


Fidelity to Best Practice

No agency intends to set forth policies that are counter to its own practice model or other standards of best practice. Change is difficult, however, and without due diligence, agencies can find themselves either watering down standards or compromising on what is required.


Maximum Flexibility

This principle provides the counter balance to standards that cannot or should not be compromised. Policies can be both clear and fixed on the intended outcome (the what) and still allow considerable flexibility in implementation (the how.)


Continuous Improvement

Inherent in effective policies is how the policy will be monitored, evaluated and modified as needed. This requires the inclusion of timeframes, trigger mechanisms or other processes for a systematic and rigorous review of the policies as they impact both clients and workers.


Policy Analysis

This requires identifying who is impacted, the ways in which they will be impacted, the technical and political dimensions of the policy, the conditions under which different decisions or actions will occur, options or alternatives to achieving goals, possible unintended consequences and ways to mitigate negative effect, costs and benefits of various options and recommendations. Proposal should include options that are both effective and acceptable and that consider political, management, financial and administrative solutions. In particular, any analysis must address how the policy will minimize or eliminate treatment disparities that are resulting in poorer outcomes for children of color.


Implementing Mechanism

Having decided on the necessity of a particular course of action, decision-makers need to determine in what form it will be promulgated. The major options are listed below and list the major reasons directors may choose each one.


Administrative Rule-Making

This is generally the most formal policy-development mechanism specifying specific notice, timeframes and decision criteria. It carries, in most jurisdictions, the force of law; that is, approved policies can only be changed or modified through the same process or by statute. Directors would use it when it is critical that all parties operate in the same way under the same conditions (e.g. eligibility criteria) or when compliance is required as a matter of statute, funding (e.g. federal regulations) or other major overarching priorities (e.g. services to children of color). Agencies would want to guard against overuse of this mechanism for matters better defined and managed under other systems; e.g. worker performance.


Executive Directives

Directors carry, by virtue of their positions, authority to set the conditions and terms under which their organizations operate; e.g. the practice model. Many of these decisions provide the basis for how offices are staffed, how clients flow through the system, what services are provided and under what conditions. They may set standards for decision-making and documentation. They may define when and how contractors are used, staffing formulas and decisions about allocations of various resources. Directives may set out mandates or allow for discretion. Overuse may incur a reaction of “flavor of the month” mentality from the field.



Procedures provide guidance on the day-to-day operation of an office. They are, in essence, the instruction manual for carrying out administrative rules and executive directives. They can provide options, examples and requirements. They are most open to change based on experience in the field, with more procedures generally required with major shifts in direction and fewer when performance is steady and even. They may be mandatory (e.g. use of standardized forms) or allow discretion. Overly specific or excessive procedures often result in non-compliance or outright hostility from the field.



This is the least formal, but often the most helpful, way to communicate with operating entities. Guidance is generally drafted in response to specific requests for clarification of a rule, directive or procedure that is not working as anticipated or getting intended results. Guidance has the fastest turnaround and is the most focused on the day-to-day needs of the field.


Case Review

This is an on-the-ground mechanism for both providing technical assistance and for spotting and/or understanding whether and to what extent policies may be causing confusion or difficulty day-to-day.



Engaging and consulting with staff, stakeholders and, as appropriate, children, youth and families will materially increase ownership. Failure to do so may result in token compliance, or non-compliance, over the long term. The groups being consulted and particularly the nature of the input requested need to be carefully thought through. Many agencies have formal “vetting” requirements such that decision-makers know in advance whether affected parties are in agreement, neutral and/or have serious objections to the proposed action.


Phasing and Staging

Child welfare is a complex and dynamic field with increasing expectations of improved outcomes for children, youth and families. The consequence is that changes in policies will likely occur more, not less, frequently. Pacing and sequencing the policy agenda is critical so the system is not overwhelmed dealing with multiple new obligations. Effective agencies do not lose sight of their overall agenda even as they may be required to address short-term or crisis policy issues.


Each agency will need to identify its criteria for setting priorities. Some common ones include:

  • Improving agency credibility by dealing with major issues of non-compliance 
  • Responding to gubernatorial or legislative priorities
  • Budgetary obligations
  • Improving accountability in the system by staff, stakeholders and clients
  • Improving efficiency by reducing or eliminating redundancies and inconsistency across policies.



Many policy decisions result or derive from decisions made by other levels of government including federal, state and local executive and legislative bodies. The ability of child welfare agencies, individually and collectively, to make a case for a particular approach or policy position is critical. To be most effective, agencies will need to understand the effect a particular policy will have on the political, economic and social conditions. It requires identifying and setting forth both short and long term implications. And advocacy requires the ability to use a range of tools and data and the ability to frame the issue for a variety of stakeholders.

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