Constructive Media: Policy Management

Commerce | Building/Consensus

This describes an exercise in building a constructive media process.

Let’s begin by saying that an organization has policies, bylaws, guidelines, position papers which govern the behavior of its members; for this exercise we will use “policies” as the generic term covering all of them. The organization has two main responsibilities: publish the policies, and understand how they are actually being employed by members.

What the best organizations need to do is foster a negotiation between the fixed policies and real-world feedback. The content management system– to do proper policy management– must facilitate this negotiation through its processes.

When the policies are updated, the cycle thus comes full circle, and the full organization is informed. The influential 1996 paper The Social Life of Documents by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid had articulated a model like this.

Let’s look at some common approaches, and how well they would fit our needs.

The Fixed Document approach

This is the old familiar way. Policies are written and fixed at some point– sometimes even set in “stone” metaphorically and, at their worst, given blasphemous titles like “The Ten Commandments of…” Comments may not even be expected assumed; if they are, they are posted elsewhere, which makes them even more difficult to collect when the next revision is needed. Furthermore, when the feedback is obscured, there is less manifest imperative to update the document.

The Blog approach

The blog approach seems to solve this, since comments almost always appear. But fundamentally blogging is narrative and observational, not normative. (Read more about the difference.) It is simply not part of a common blogging practice to go back and edit a post. Furthermore blogs have always been intended to be read in the reverse chronological, continuous flow style. The essay format is generally excluded from blogging streams.

The Wiki approach

Wiki writing, on the other hand, is normative. On a wiki system of any considerable size there is a likelihood that any topic of relative importance (over a million in the English language Wikipedia) has been covered– thus it’s a good candidate for policy management. Each document is readily updated by a subject matter expert when new information becomes available.

But there are shortcomings to the Wiki approach for organizations. The frequency of versions is uncontrolled– so there is not an understanding that a given wiki page will be authoritative for a given period of time. Furthermore, the commenting mechanism on a wiki is primitively constructed; .

The Constructive Media approach

The Constructive Media approach is designed to solve these problems. The frequency of versions are controlled to some schedule (quarterly, annually). In between new versions, the document is open for comments and suggestions, and those should be never far from (i.e., linked, or on) the main document page. When a new revision is updated, the comments are archived with the old revision (by the good faith that they were incorporated in the newer version). Naturally, the archived versions should be accessible from the main document page as well.

Furthermore, it’s conventional that a document has a given status (e.g. “approved”) because a certain high-level officer has signed off on it, but that may hide complexities. Different stakeholders should be able to sign off, positively or negatively, on different parts of the policy. While this undercuts control, it can be a better reflection of reality.

The constructive media process, is in fact not entirely new, it’s how the code of law works in this country. (Even, remarkably enough, after a President signs a law, there has been the practice for the last twenty years of adding signing statements to explain how he plans on interpreting it; I have suggested that this be called the “sock it veto.”) While the development of legal code is an excellent model, it is also highly labor- and paper-intensive. Thus my inclination to define the model in workflow software. 

Lastly, it’s entirely possible that people have extended blogs and wikis beyond their conventional definitions to be able to do the constructive media approach. But fundamentally, they need to recognized that this is, quite clearly, a different approach. I’ve been calling a website which does constructive media a civ.

This website approximates a civ in that I see it as fundamental to update old documents as new information comes in. Unfortunately, Drupal doesn’t completely support all of the civ aspects at this time, but I like to argue that it’s a good direction for the software to go in.