When did you last read your policies that describe how you will govern?

© 2011 Robert J. Ballantyne with Caroline Oliver

Boards that are new to Policy Governance will spend a lot of time thinking about their Ends and Executive Limitation policies because these contain the words used to delegate the work of their organization to the staff. However, when it comes to articulating the concepts in Governance Process and Board-CEO Delegation categories of policies, boards will often accept the recommendations of their consultant. Unfortunately this means that boards sometimes pay too little attention to the content of those words when in fact they may well cover issues that deserve the board’s attention.

Part of the reason for the content of these policies being ignored may be that much of what is covered in the Governance Process and Board-CEO Delegation categories is a restatement of the substance of Policy Governance itself. Yet it is important and here’s why. These are the policies that the board should be using to hold itself accountable. Now that the policies for your CEO are approved, here is where Policy Governance itself is integrated into your organization. Policy Governance is no longer just the words written by the author of the model, John Carver, or the teachings of your consultant. Policy Governance for you is now what you have articulated in your policies.

As you know, the board is accountable to its owners. In most organizations however there is no effective continuing mechanism for the ownership to hold its board accountable. Therefore, if the board is going to behave responsibly from meeting to meeting it will likely have to come up with some way to hold itself accountable for adhering to its own policies that describe how it intends to govern.

One idea adopted by most Policy Governance boards is that there be a brief self-evaluation report given at the end of every board meeting. Often, a different board member is selected at each meeting to provide that report which usually means filling out a form that becomes part of the minutes. Another idea that can be an alternative to meeting evaluation, or an addition to it, is to have a less frequent (say six-monthly or annual) assessment conducted by the whole board – again using some kind of standard form. Whatever procedure is used, it is my observation that there are a couple of activities that can erode the effectiveness of board evaluation.

First it is not helpful if meeting or board evaluators answer the evaluation questions on the form without recognizing that those questions are purely reminders of the policies themselves. The object is to ensure that the policies are being followed, not just to fill out a form. In all cases, in preparation for conducting board evaluation, the evaluators should first re-read all of the relevant policies so as to be sure they report with a fresh understanding of those words.

It is vital that board members are constantly reminded that their Governance Process and Board-CEO Delegation policies are their descriptions of how they intend to govern and it is therefore really helpful if all board evaluation reports are fully discussed by the whole board at the next available board meeting after they have been produced.

The second activity that can cause erosion of the effectiveness of board evaluation is the board changing Governance Process and Board-CEO Delegation policies without ensuring that the board fully understands the principles behind Policy Governance. In my observation, this often occurs after the board has acquired a number of new members. Without adequate orientation about the principles of Policy Governance it is all too easy for boards to end up adopting new or reworded policies that substantially undermine their effectiveness. The result is boards evaluating themselves against criteria that no longer add up to a coherent approach and, inevitably, finding that Policy Governance is no longer working for them.

To sum up, done properly, board evaluation is a great tool for ensuring that the policies that describe how your board governs are kept real, up-to-date and true to your governing intent. So, when did you last read yours?

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