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Key objective

Develop a terms of reference that clearly articulates your scope of work.

Common problems

  • Having a poorly drafted terms of reference that's vague, ambiguous and doesn't specify what the taskforce will do and how it will do it
  • Drafting a terms of reference without clarifying the problem first, leading to too broad a scope and uncertainty around objectives or deliverables
  • Starting work without having an agreed terms of reference in place, which may result in unfocused work and wasted effort
  • Preempting the work of the taskforce by locking it in to a set of solutions through the terms of reference which may not be the best course of action for the problem at hand.

Tips for success

  • Develop a terms of reference early – this defines your scope and informs your workplan, so early drafting and agreement will enable you to get started on work in a focused way; it should also rule things out of scope before you invest time and effort into them
  • Specify the issues the taskforce will consider and clearly outline deliverables so that expectations around the work of the taskforce are unambiguous and supported by decision-makers
  • Clarify how decisions will be made – the terms of reference should specify critical governance information like who the taskforce will report to on deliverables and any ministerial or cross-agency governance bodies it will work to.

Terms of reference are important to set expectations and constrain scope

A terms of reference (ToR) is a document which articulates the scope of work for a taskforce and how the people identified in the ToR will work together in the pursuit of a shared goal.

A ToR should clarify the expectations of project sponsor(s) (the senior executive(s) with overall accountability for the project), key stakeholders and taskforce members about what will be delivered by when, and how work will proceed. It should also constrain the scope of the taskforce so that the highest value work follows – it’s better to have a well-defined scope that leads to a high impact policy outcome than a broad scope that yields little value in its deliverables.

The origins of taskforces vary and in some cases, a ToR may have been settled before a taskforce is established. If this is the case, problem definition is still an important step – the ToR is often high level and further clarity is often needed.

If you do have the opportunity to develop the terms of reference directly, the examples and guide on writing one in 60 minutes will help you with this process.

Best practice for terms of reference

Develop one early. A ToR should be developed, tested and agreed before a significant amount of work is undertaken. Where possible a ToR should be tested and refined with key stakeholders to build consensus about the key issues and end goals.

Specify clear deliverables. A ToR should outline the specific outputs the taskforce needs to deliver and the timeframe to undertake the work.

Clarify how decisions will be made. It is often necessary to distinguish between decision makers responsible for taking action versus those responsible for the day-to-day operations of a taskforce. Other people may contribute in an advisory capacity only.

Focus on key issues and expectations. A ToR should outline any specific expectations about the work of the taskforce. This may include key issues (or those out of scope), the nature of any problem solving processes, the people to be involved or the solutions to be explored. The scope of a ToR should reflect the quantum of resources available to deliver the work.

How to draft a ToR in 60 minutes

  • Get the right people in the room. Project sponsor, taskforce members, key stakeholders if possible.
  • Identify shared goals (10 minutes). Agree overarching goals and how the taskforce will contribute to them.
  • Discuss taskforce approach (20 minutes). Discuss the key issues in and out of scope, work to be undertaken, people to be involved.
  • Agree deliverables (10 minutes). Map out what the taskforce must deliver over the course of its life.
  • Write it up (20 minutes), then test it. Capture the outcomes of the discussion on a whiteboard, post-its or the template provided. Test it widely.
Last reviewed: 
15 January 2021