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Featured Question - September 8, 2003

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What do we do as a board once we have mastered the basics of Policy Governance?


Although it may be implied, it is certainly not clear how a board might go about improving its governance once it has implemented Policy Governance.  There are two areas to consider as a board approaches improving its governance.  The first is to compare what the board has said in its policies and what actually happens, and the second area is opportunities for improvement.

Most of the Policy Governance literature makes a strong case for board to conduct a self-evaluation on a regular basis.  That recommendation goes as far as providing feedback every meeting by creating something like a board-observer role.  This is an effective way to increase a board's awareness of when they are out of compliance with their own policies.  However, this doesn't address what the board wants to do about being out of compliance.  There are two choices.  The first is to redraft the policies so that they match what the board does.  The other is to change the board's behavior to match the policies.  For many compliance issues, the awareness of the behavior is enough.  However, for those behaviors that continue even after they have been pointed out usually have other factors that work together, making them difficult to change.  Having Policies and desiring to follow them isn't necessarily enough to create complete compliance.  To create the necessary changes boards will have to become more systemic in their analysis and solution development.  They will have to look for the causes to the resistance to change.

Policy Governance does a good job of providing a rationale for a board to hold itself accountable to its own policies, but says little about more general improvement.  Some of this is attributable to Policy Governance itself.  The delegation process of Policy Governance leaves what is unspoken in governance to the board chair.  If a board has not spoken to more general improvement efforts in governance, it is left to the discretion of the chair.  The other piece is that Policy Governance tends to be non-prescriptive.  It leaves the choice of pursuing general improvement efforts up to a board's discretion based on that board' values.  This leaves two opportunities to move it that direction, but it takes a decision to do so because general improvement  is not inherently part of Policy Governance.  In fairness, it is not part of pragmatic governance either, and probably even less likely to be so.  To move ahead with improvement, a board or a chair will have to be intentional about the effort. 

Some suggestions, taken from the Policy Governance Board Excellence Assessment Manual and the Assessment Board Guide, for areas to seek improvement are:

  • Relationship to Owners
  • Ends Development and Review
  • Board Planning and Self-Management
  • Executive Relationship
  • Board Level Relationships

Further assessment of a board's approach in each of these areas should provide a list of opportunities for improvement, which a board can use to continue it's growth in governance excellence. 

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