Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Questions about Policy Governance

A series of questions about Policy Governance was posted on Facebook a few years back. They were good questions, and things I think the membership would want to know, so I've copied them and the answers here.

Q: How much of the membership knows how PG works?
A: Not many, but then why whould they? PG is how Council operates, not how Equity operates. Saying that Council works under PG is similar to saying that we operate under Bourinot's Rules of Order, which we also do. It is simply a way of structuring Council's approach to governance.

Q: Is it a perfect model?
A: Nothing is perfect, but it is by far the most coherent and comprehensive that I am aware of.

When Council was considering a switch to PG in 2004-5, I was its fiercest critic. I spent a solid 18 months reading books on governance, researching online, examining critiques of PG and other approaches. I really dove into that. PG turned out to be the only model that was built from the ground up for the specific purpose of encouraging excellence in governance in non-profit organisations, and was not merely a set of generic labels slapped on existing practice in order to sell books or consultancy services. In the end, I was impressed enough by what I learned, and what Council was taught, that I made the motion myself. Council was similarly impressed - the motion passed handily.

At the beginning of each term, we have two days of training. One of the Councillors present for those sessions had a lot of experience working with a board. In the middle of the second day, he turned to me and said, "I wish I could get my board to work this way." I think that comment pretty much says it all.

Q: Is it the most efficient model?
A: As a general statement, the biggest inefficiency in any not for profit board are the board members themselves. Volunteer boards have a tendency to go round and round the block on the thorniest issues; they tend to favour discussion over decision; they are only "in the office" for a few hours per month; for any given meeting, about 1/4 to 1/3 of a volunteer board are absent due to work and other commitments; and, in our case, most of us get replaced every three years. Despite the intelligence and dedication on Council, or perhaps because of it, we experience all of these. Adopting a model like PG provides a backbone that helps keeps the whole thing together and moving forward. That's where efficiency and effectiveness comes from - bringing a professional approach to a volunteer board.

Q: Does our ED like it?
A: Arden has said that she does. Under PG, Council takes care of its own business, and she is able to take care of hers. The monitoring reports Arden needs to write take a lot of time and effort, but she recognises that because Council has delegated a lot of work to staff, it is only reasonable (and necessary) that we we regularly confirm that the work is being done. Delegation is not about giving something away and losing control over it.


Q: When does PG not work?
A: That's a bit like asking when filing things in alphabetical order doesn't work. It "doesn't work" when you want it to do something that it was not meant to do.

PG imposes some constraints on how Council operates: it requires all Council decisions to be voted upon to be official; written down in one place, so that they don't get lost, misremembered or forgotten; assigned to either Council or the ED for action; and monitored regularly to make certain they happen as stipulated. If what a board is looking for is an organised board and staff, it works. If what a board wants is continuity, track-ability of decisions, comprehensive monitoring of an organisation's operation, and effective direction of staff, it works.

If what a board wants is a governance model that lets them do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want, PG does not "work." That approach may be satisfying in the moment, but it is a mess in the long run and it was the biggest reason for switching governance models in the first place.

Q: Do things take more time under PG?
A: First see my notes about Council efficiency. That accounts for most of the time taken on most topics. The remainder is taken up by careful writing of the policy language required to make things happen consistently, on a national basis, over long periods of time. It's not easy to boil hours of discussion down into succinct direction to staff, and it usually goes through several drafts, worked on at monthly intervals.

There are also monitoring responsibilities and policy review that take up a modest amount of time. Most not for profit boards only monitor things sporadically, and generally just after something has gone wrong, rather than cyclically. Similarly, few boards regularly review the decisions they have made, and (seemingly) expect them to be valid forever. This work is a part of every Council meeting, although put at the end of the agenda in order to ensure that it doesn't take over.

Q: When does Council get frustrated with PG?
A: PG divides the work of an organisation between the board and the staff, and requires that both sides rigorously adhere to that delegation. Council gets frustrated when it really, really, really wants to take over the work of the ED. Here's the thing, though: when a board does that, accountability goes out the window. It's always better to have one set of hands on the steering wheel, than several. Council charts the course, and the ED does the driving.

Q: What about the human sacrifices?
A: No comment.

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