Learn to govern out of your policy book

The board is the highest authority in the organization. As long as the board does not require its staff to behave in an illegal, imprudent or unethical manner, the board has the power to issue any command that it decides is appropriate. With traditional governance, most boards exercise that authority. A Policy Governance board has developed other tools for attending to its fiduciary responsibilities. Learning to use those tools is one of the skills that must be acquired by the board members. [click the title if you do not see the remainder of this article…]

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For years the advice to those who govern has been to accomplish the work by writing policy. A board that has developed some policies is not necessarily a Policy Governance board. Policy Governance® (PG) is a term registered by Dr. John Carver to describe the complete model of governance that he authored.

Before a board can begin to govern with PG, the board will have written a coherent set of policies in four categories: Ends, Executive Limitations, Governance Process, and CEO Linkage. I refer to that set of policies as the board’s policy book.

Often that book is created at a retreat. Boards have been doing self-improvement retreats for years. The question asked by everyone who watches the board will be: what is different now that the board has created its policy book?

Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is: almost nothing. If you look at the agenda of the subsequent board meetings, the items that command the attention of the board are the same as always.

The board must take responsibility for its own processes. If it is leaving it to the staff to suggest the appropriate agenda items, or assumes this is completely the job of the chair, the board will quickly lose control. I find that most people are willing to become familiar with the reading material sent out before a meeting, and when they show up, they will participate in the discussion. What most people will not do is decide for themselves if the topics put before them are really worthy of their time. A PG board must be deliberate about how it is prepared to allocate its governing time.

We live in difficult and changing times. There will always be issues facing our organizations. Many of these issues will be very important. In sorting out what will make it on to the agenda of the board, the deciding factor is not the importance of the matter, but who, or what group is accountable for dealing with it.

With traditional boards, the assumption was that all important issues would be brought to the board. With PG, most such issues have been delegated to the staff. This delegation had been done in a responsible manner by framing the possible actions of the staff with a complete set set of policies. If the staff is really to be accountable, the board compromises that accountability by interfering.

What, then, does the board do when it is the board that is accountable — or the board chooses to be accountable? The temptation is to look at this as a one-time-only, or somehow exceptional, situation and decide that either the board will take care of it, or it will issue an instruction to the staff.

Often this seems like the easy solution. I’ve seen this happen when the board knew that the staff did not currently have someone who was as knowledgeable as some of the board members about the issue. So, it seemed easier for the board to decide that the board members could cope with the matter themselves. On another occasion, someone in the general membership had behaved badly and the staff wanted the board to be responsible for revoking that person’s membership. And so on.

Yes, the board could take on the responsibility and make a decision. It is clear that when using PG, the board can take on any matter it wishes, and then hold itself (not the staff) accountable for the outcome.

Boards members should be aware that every time they issue a command, or otherwise act in a manner that is not in accord with its policies, those who watch the board (staff, other board members, volunteers, some of the membership, even the community) will attempt to deduce what are the real policies that are implied by that decision. Most board members would be disappointed if they were to discover what conclusions were being arrived at by those board-watchers. Although it seems like harder work, it would be better to be deliberate about expressing the policy than to have these implied policies.

Once the board has created its policy book, it no longer matters what John Carver or Robert Ballantyne have to say about what is and what is not Policy Governance. This board has described it in the section of the policy book called, Governance Process. Is the board really holding itself accountable for governing according to its own policies?

When an issue arises, how then should the board respond and be true to PG?

The tool of governance that the PG board uses is its policy book.

  1. Begin by deciding that the board is really accountable for the matter. If you know it has been delegated to the staff, leave it with the staff.
  2. Check to see what the board’s policies have to say about the matter. Often the board will discuss the matter for a long time before anyone reads what is in the policy book. This is where you should start. Often, although the issue may be new, the existing policies adequately address the matter. Likely you will find that, unless you are really familiar with your policies, you will need to search carefully. Many issues are governed by more than one policy statement.
  3. If the board’s policies do not address the issue, then the board will have to decide if this is issue is an example of an inadequacy of the policy book. Should this be the case, the board will have to schedule the time to revise or rewrite the appropriate polices. Remember that you are not writing a policy to deal with just this issue. You are writing policy to address all similar issues.

The job of the board is not simply to deal with the issue that has arisen, but to use that as an example to illuminate the writing of better policies.

The policy book becomes an accurate statement of the board’s wisdom. It is the guide that the staff uses to create the future that the board has required. It is information that the community can have to know what is expected. If the policy book is monitored, and truly represents the intention of the board, those words become a powerful tool for community transformation.

Since it is a tool, it must be wielded to be effective. It is a living document that should reflect the current situation. When the board’s wisdom changes, or the situation in the community changes, those policies should be revisited and updated if necessary. Writing policy is the primary job of the board. It is what is meant by governing out of the policy book.
© 2007 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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