Guest blog: What is Policy? – by Grace Coleman

What Is Policy?

I had been asking myself – and everyone else – this question a hundred times this week. ‘What is Policy?’

True to my millennial breeding,  I turn to Google.


Noun: policy; plural noun: policies

  • a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual.

Your standard stiff dictionary definition – but I didn’t want a textbook definition, or politician’s definition either.

I wanted to know what YOU thought Policy meant. I wanted to know what everyone else thought it meant, and WHY it might be important.

This was one of my first tasks. On my first day at APO, I stepped out of a brand meeting in which we were discussing the many facets of what Policy is, does and can be.

For me, the meeting opened up a pandora’s box of what policy actually is – action.

Did anyone pick up on the contradiction that the word ‘policy’ is a noun defined by a verb – action?

The act of policy encompasses a lot of what we take for granted in our day to day lives.

It is the prevention, the response, the intervention, the technology, the improvement, the catalyst, the continuation, the past, the present, the future – policy is the entire network of what regulates our lives.

It’s a lot.

If you already work in or around policy, then you will know that it is about taking stakeholders decisions and principles and turning them into courses of action. It is more than making promises, it is the active effort of making change.

The particular goal of this brand meeting was how to best communicate the importance of what policy is to those who might not realise it. I once had a clowning teacher– yes the circus type – who, under rigorous physical, mental and creative training would preach everyday the balance of freedom and discipline. Without freedom, we can have no understanding of the importance of discipline. Without discipline, we cannot relish or appreciate the true joy of freedom.

I have taken this mantra into almost every aspect of my life – and I think it applies here as well. Policy provides our lives with the structure and discipline from which we can live freely. It is vital to people’s everyday life and the way they navigate it.

So what is APO’s job in all of this? They make it easier for you to understand your freedoms by understanding your disciplines.

What is Policy – to YOU?

As someone who already follows APO (you may already know in depth, the subtle arts of policy making) how do you describe and explain this to people in your day to day lives? (I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!)

How do you communicate what Policy is, what it does and why it is so important?

The first point raised in the meeting was about the perception of the word ‘policy’, a very valid point for APO. The word  word has dubious meanings attached to it – too many perhaps?

Is the word ‘Policy’ too elitist? Does it alienate people from joining APO?’

Maybe. But it’s a little late to change it now, and the objective shouldn’t be to change the name, but the perception of the name. That’s where we come in. Our job should be to bring policy back down to earth for everyone to understand because, at the end of the day, we are ALL affected by policy.

At risk of sounding evangelical, the word ‘policy’ could definitely be lit up under a different spotlight.

We can make the word less scary to those who might balk at it.
We can make it more interesting to those who might be bored by it.
We can demystify the term for those who may be baffled by it.

We can take the word that falls carelessly out the mouths of politicians, lawyers, health inspectors and public servants and re-shape it into something that every person can feel comfortable using to its fullest of meaning.

Policy, in its simplest of terms, is a guide to the decisions we make – based on the values and principles that we collectively hold. This collective could be as big as a society or a government or more intimate, like a school or a workplace.

Public policy – the kind that APO mostly handles – can be further defined as a system of codes and laws, regulation, courses of action and distribution of funding and resources. It is a reflection of the views of the public.

A good example of this is the plebiscite that decided the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This was a policy implemented in direct response to the views of people. Now of course, there was much debate and division over this decision, but at times that makes public policy all the more harder to implement.

Policy is a reflection of people’s values – not necessarily to please or placate everyone – but to provide a common ground from which to grow. Like art, whether a policy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is subjective, and relies much upon the individual’s perspective. We know how hard it is to please and cater to everyone – at Christmas dinner, in the workplace – now imagine doing that for a whole society!

The challenges of public policy is to align our values with our actions. In a fluid, fast paced and ever changing environment, this job can seem much harder than first thought.

Why is Policy so Important?

Policy can be invisible, but influential. We can’t always see it, but it is intrinsically part of our day to day lives. It is as much of what we do (and why we do it) as it is the rules that are already in place. It helps build a framework from which we can freely move from.

It also helps us understand each other a little bit better!

Understanding what a policy means is just as much about understanding the principles that lie behind them. Even if we don’t always agree, by understanding an organisation’s or a group’s policy, we can have a greater understanding of where their beliefs come from.

Editor’s note: This blog post was written by Grace Coleman, who was on work placement at APO from June – September 2018. Grace is currently finishing her final year of a Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at La Trobe University. APO would like to thank Grace for both her dedication and enthusiasm while being on placement at APO. This blog is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of APO.