3.5 Operational Policies and Procedures

What do we mean by operational policies and procedures?

Operational policies and procedures are key tools for implementing political finance legislation and the oversight institution’s strategic framework. For purposes here, policies refer to high level guidelines that frame your approach to decision-making. Policies should align with the strategic framework and help explain the bases upon which decisions are taken. Procedures, by contrast, provide specific step-by-step instructions for how specified tasks are done to fulfil the agreed policies. Some commentators distinguish policies from procedures by saying that policies drive decisions whilst procedures drive actions.

Why are operational policies and procedures important?

Both are important tools for implementing political finance legislation and the oversight institution’s strategic framework. They help transform the oversight institution’s purpose, vision and values into reality

Political finance regulation must be administered in an impartial and consistent manner to ensure fairness and inspire confidence in the democratic process. Policies set the ‘rules of the game’ for the regulated community and the oversight institution. Publicly available policies also serve as benchmarks for those who monitor and hold the oversight institution to account, e.g. civil society organisations and parliamentary scrutiny committees. Written procedures give your staff clear direction about how they are to perform their duties and help safeguard consistency and impartiality.

Principles underpinning operational policies

Some general principles to guide you in developing your operational policies include:

  • The policy should be consistent with the legal framework and your institution’s overall vision/approach and goals.
  • The policy should cover all aspects of the issue.
  • Minimise the burden imposed on participants as much as possible whilst achieving the policy’s intended purpose.
  • Consult with stakeholders as you develop the policy
  • Ensure that the policy is written clearly and is easily accessible to all
  • Review established policies episodically to ensure they are still fit for purpose

What type of operational policies are needed by oversight institutions?

Policies take different forms and may be referred to differently from one jurisdiction to another. They may be called edits, orders, bylaws, instructions, regulations - or simply policies. In some countries, the primary legislation will confer a general power which can be read to encompass the issuance of policies, in others the legislation is more explicit about the power and in still others, the law specifically requires the oversight institution to publish a policy on specific topics. A final area of difference relates to the nature or effect of policies issued by the oversight institution. In some jurisdictions, they will have the force of law, in others they will be advisory only and in some they may have the force of law depending on the method used for their issuance. In short, you will need to establish a clear understanding of the legal basis of policies in your jurisdiction.

There is no universal approach to the format or style of policies as these will be influenced by the law and customs of each individual country. However, there are some common substantive areas that warrant having well-considered guidelines to inform decision making even in the absence of statutory requirements. Typical policies issued by oversight institutions include:

What type of procedures are needed by oversight institutions?

There is no prescribed list of procedures that every oversight institution must have. However, the general rule of thumb would be to develop a written procedure for any activity that is critical to your mission and where errors, if they were to occur, would have significant consequences.

Whatever procedures your oversight institution decides to have should be in writing, and should spell out what steps are to be taken, by whom, when and how. It is worthwhile to develop a systematic approach to the development, maintenance and review of all procedures. This would include having a mechanism to ensure the procedures are being followed and a mechanism for encouraging and managing change requests.

3.5.1 Discussion of Policies

  • Control of election campaign finance reports It is helpful for electoral contestants and civil society organisations to have a clear understanding of the oversight institution’s position on how it will approach the submission and review of campaign finance reports: What action may ensue if a report is not timely submitted, is inaccurate or fails to comply with required format? What level of scrutiny will the reports undergo?
  • Enforcement actions and sanctions: An enforcement and sanctions policy addresses what happens when there has been non-compliance with the law. What factors will be considered when determining whether to investigate a potential breach, what are the guidelines for conducting investigations and what criteria apply when determining sanctions. For more information about handling non-compliance with the law, see the Section on handling issues of non-compliance.
  • Disclosure of information It is important to have clear guidelines on what information the oversight institution will disclose, to whom and when such disclosure will take place. For example, will the oversight institution confirm that it has received a complaint against a political party and/or will it disclose publicly when it has initiated an investigation against a political party? The timing for disclosing complaints and outcomes of investigations can be critical during election periods as it can have an impact on the election result. Without having a clear disclosure policy (and adhering to it), the decision to disclose or not to disclose such information could be seen as politically motivated. An established policy of when and how enforcement and other decisions will be announced can counter unwarranted accusations of political bias in the handling of such matter.
  • Publication of political finance data. The publication of political finance reports and data may appear on the surface to be straight-forward but it is not. Common situations that arise include whether to publish reports that fail to comply with technical requirements, whether to allow amendments to previously submitted reports and, if so, how to reflect - if at all, that the information has been amended. Publication policies will also need to reflect application laws regarding personal data, or if there isn’t relevant data protection laws, the oversight institution will need to determine how much information should be published on-line, e.g. the names and details of all vendors to the various political parties and candidates or just those whose transactions exceed a certain level.
  • Prioritising resources and workload (see Hints for developing policies for prioritising resources and workload.pdf) Oversight institutions ideally will be sufficiently resourced to handle all its activities and progress its workload in a timely manner. However, staff shortages can occur either due to lack of allocated resources or due to staff recruitment issues. In the context of enforcement work, an argument could be made that not all potential breaches of political finance laws warrant enforcement action and that allocating time and resources to them simply is not proportionate.

3.5.2 Procedures (consideration for oversight institutions)

In addition to providing a framework for ensuring consistency and impartiality, there are several operational benefits to having a set of written procedures:

  • The best way of doing things can be agreed and then followed: For example, in performing control of campaign expenditure reports, the procedure would specify what the order of each step in the process, the documents to be considered and the tests to be applied.
  • Eliminates ambiguity about who should be doing what and when both within teams and between teams: For example, some staff may be tasked with examining finance reports for possible illegal sources of funding, whilst colleagues from another team may be responsible for initiating administrative proceedings once illegal funding has been identified. In this case, a procedure setting out what information and documentation is to be provided to the administrative proceedings team member, the format for setting out the information, completion of a referral log, etc., will avoid communication issues and misunderstandings.
  • Allows for continuous improvement and a means for improvement suggestions to be properly dealt with by managers: A procedure for making suggestions can encourage staff to bring forward ideas for greater efficiency and effectiveness. It provides a specific way to flag such ideas and then allows them to be tracked for consideration by management. This avoids suggestions from getting lost in a dark whole which merely discourages staff from making any further suggestions. For example, a staff person may suggest sending a reminder notice about a filing deadline to cut down on the number of late submissions. The procedure might identify to whom the suggestion should be made, how it should be made and a timeframe for a decision to be made on the suggestion. Change requests should be tracked from their receipt to resolution. This helps build staff confidence that their suggestions will be taken seriously and addressed in a timely manner (see Sample change request spreadsheet.xlsx).
  • Accelerates training and induction of staff: Oversight institutions, like all organisations, will experience staff changes from time to time. Unlike many other organisations, there will likely be a spike in staffing numbers in the run-up to electoral events. This means that new staff need to be trained quickly and usually during a crunch period. Having written procedures can lessen the time and effort it takes to bring new staff members up to speed.

How to design procedures?

Five essential steps for developing procedures:

  1. Identify and prioritise the key processes based on a quality risk assessment (e.g. what are errors must likely to occur and which errors will create the most damage)
  2. Engage staff in developing the procedures. They know the current processes and will be the ones to use the new procedures.
  3. Develop storage for the procedures, preferably on a suitable intranet system. Best to avoid paper manuals that can become outdated quickly and create version control issues.
  4. Keep them up to date by acting on suggestions for change, reacting to external changes (e.g. changes in the law) and by undertaking quality audits.
  5. Check that both the initial mapped procedure and any proposed changes to current procedures are consistent with applicable legislation.

(see Sample procedure.pdf)

What are quality audits and why conduct them?

There is no point in having written procedures unless they are followed and kept up to date. Quality audits, which can be undertaken by peers or supervisors, provide a systemised way to achieve these goals. The audit would review how staff have executed a particular activity. For example, a team member may review the case file of her colleague to ensure that a complaint has been assessed in accordance with steps set out in the complaints’ assessment procedure. If there are deviations from the agreed procedure, an explanation would be sought. It may well be that the colleague had found a more efficient way to perform the assessment or that the assessment procedure is outdated. And, if it was an error or misunderstanding of the procedure, then the audit provides an opportunity to clarify and reinforce the procedure’s requirements; it is not intended to be part of any formal performance appraisal.

The tools needed to undertake quality audits include:

  • A schedule of which procedures should be audited and when. It may well be that and audit of one procedure per quarter is sufficient depending on your assessment of need and risk.
  • An audit review template (link to example of template)
  • Guidance to staff and those conducting the audits about their purpose