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Learn about Policy Governance®

The Policy Governance model is not overly complicated, but it is different from traditional governance and is certainly different from traditional management.  It is also comprehensive and integrated.  These aspects make it a bit of a challenge to learn and apply.  Policy Governance is also robust enough that its concepts have implications for many situations or issues, requiring continued learning as new applications are recognized.  This web site has a number of resources for those that would like to learn more about Policy Governance.  The following section, Getting Started is a good place to begin for those that have little or no exposure to Policy Governance.  There are also a number of other resources for those that want to go beyond a basic understanding of Policy Governance.

Getting Started

One of the difficulties with Policy Governance is where to start.  It is best to break up the task into two parts.  The first is to gain an understanding of the basics concepts of Policy Governance, and the second is to create a set of policies that are specific to the organization.  There is a third part, refining the board meeting and planning process but it comes after there is some mastery of the first two parts.  The following outlines provide an approach to building a basic understanding and creating an initial set of policies. 

  • Draft an initial set of policies
  • Start with a generic or borrowed set of Policies (click to download a set of policies)
  • Draft Organization-Specific End Policies
  • Review Executive Limitations Policies
  • Review Board Self-Management Policies
  • Review Board and Executive Relationship Policies

Ends versus Means

Policy Governance differentiates between Ends and Means.  Ends, the purpose of the organization, are defined as the benefit that the organization creates for a particular group of people, and the relative worth of those benefits.  For example, "families within the community experience less family violence" would be an End, while "to create programs to reduce family violence" would not be an End.  In the last statement, there is no assurance that there is any benefit for families, only that programs will be created.  Although Ends are somewhat overlapping with mission statements and goal setting, they are not synonymous.  Ends focus on results for people that are external to the organization.  Mission statements and goals could focus on results for people, but most often do not.  It is one of the primary responsibilities of the board to identify the Ends.  Means are defined as anything that is not an End.  This separation, although simple, allows the board to keep the purpose of the organization positioned independently from the way that the organization plans to achieve that purpose. 

Delegation through Limitations

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In Policy Governance boards delegate authority to the executive by defining what not to do rather than by giving permission or approving certain actions.  The "not to dos" are called Limitations.  A board's use of this technique, although counterintuitive, allows the executive to act without having to seek the boards permission.  The board has already defined what is acceptable and what is not.  However, it does require the board to be inclusive, complete and comprehensive in the limitations that they identify.  These limitations need to be done is a proactive manner, rather than waiting for a situation or need to arise. 

Any Reasonable Interpretation

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Boards do not have to define the Ends or the Limitations to the N'th degree, rather their job is to define them up until the point that any reasonable interpretation would be acceptable.  It then becomes the executive's job to create any further needed refinement.  The executive can not interpret the Ends or the Limitations in any way wished.  The executive's interpretations must be reasonable.  Although interpretation sounds a little bit mushy in terms of accountability, interpretation is required under all systems of governance or manner of delegation.  It is a matter of degree of interpretation. 

Creating Accountability

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Policy Governance, through its separation of Ends and Means and delegation of authority through Limitations, establishes one of the most powerful models for creating accountability.  Although the Policy Governance literature is fuzzy by what it means when it refers to accountability, the following definition will be used here.  Accountability means to be responsible to achieve a set of expectations and that the achievement of those expectations are being monitored or measured in some way.  Someone could be responsible for certain expectations, such as a spending limitation, but not accountable for it because it is not monitored.  Also implied here is that monitoring does not take the responsibility away from the individual to correct unacceptable achievement of the expectations.  The responsibility for the achieving the expectations stay with the individual even when the expectations are not being achieved.

Policy Governance provides a well crafted system to create executive accountability.  The board's expectations for the executive are the Ends and the Limitations on Means.  What is acceptable and what is unacceptable has already been defined through the concept of Limitations and the acceptable cost component of Ends.  The only thing missing is monitoring of performance to these expectations.  Policy Governance requires that all Limitations and Ends be monitored regularly and in a fashion determined by the board.  The board should receive regular feedback that there is compliance with the Limitations and the Ends of the organization are being achieved.  Anything that doesn't require monitoring is either not a Limitation or an End. 

The Board's One Voice

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Most boards do not relate to the executive as a unit, rather they relate as a group of individuals and sub-groups.  The executive is bombarded with multiple expectations from multiple sources.  This creates an unclear message to the executive, opportunities for individual board members to have undo influence, and significantly reduces accountability.  In Policy Governance the board is to speak to the executive with one voice, and that one voice is reflected in the written documents of the board, usually the minutes and the board Policy Manual which contains the Ends, Executive Limitations and how the board will relate to the executive.  If it is not within one of these documents, then the board has not officially spoken.  This has ramifications for committees, the relationship between the chair and the executive, and how the executive interacts with the board. 

Board Means

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In addition to the Means that that have been left to the executive and are controlled through Limitations, there are Means that have been left to the board.  They are board self-management and the board's relationship with the executive.  These may be obvious, but in traditional board governance they are known but rarely defined.  Policy Governance requires that the board be explicit about the Means.  By providing a mechanism for the board to speak to itself about how it goes about managing its own business, boards have a way of holding themselves more accountable for their own actions. 

The Board Policy Manual

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Unlike traditional board policy manuals, which are mostly sets of procedures for staff to carry out, a policy manual based on Policy Governance is more of a statement of values of why the organization exists, how the board will conduct itself, and conditions which need to be avoided.  It is not the manual that is important but rather the values which it reflects.  The policy manual is written with four sections: Ends, Board Self-Management, Board and Executive Relationship and Executive Limitations.

Lynn A. Walker, Ph.D.
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