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Moving Policy Governance from Understanding into Full Integration

Policy Governance integration implies an inevitable linear march toward perfection.  Of course the train can go permanently off the tracks at any point along the way.  This is not the fault of the model, but rather the human ability to sustain an intentional effort over time.  If the board hangs in there, this article is a map to the ultimate destination.

Gary Davis, CAE, Executive Director
Illinois Community College Trustees Association

Moving Policy Governance from Understanding into Full Integration

Submitted by Susan S. Stratton, Policy Governance Specialist, ACCT Board Services Consultant

When a Board enters into the Policy Governance way of being, it is not unusual that a few of the key details are not implemented at the time of installation.  Policy Governance is, after all, a process that requires the Board to pass through “developmental stages” of understanding.

The developmental stages of understanding usually include the following:

Phase 1: The Board installs Policy Governance means policies with or without the assistance of a Policy Governance® trained consultant.

This phase includes conversations with the college president about the boundaries of operations vs board work and a promise that those boundaries will be observed.  Development of ends (intended outcomes) begins in this phase, however, the result of the discussion is often incomplete.  The sustainability of the ends discussion is less than adequate at this point for four reasons: 
1. The board’s focus is drawn into the dilemma of an operational issue,
2. The board is not accustomed to staying at the broadest possible level of policy during its regular meetings,
3. Big picture (vision and outcome) thinking is rarely on the agenda of a regular meeting.  That kind of big picture thinking is reserved for board retreats!  
4.  The profound shift in governing attributed to the ways of Policy Governance® has not been integrated into the Board’s thinking.  This shift requires focus on the process of discernment and deliberation which ultimately results in broad policy development.

Predictable Outcomes of Phase 1: 

  • The board has a policy manual, yet few trustees know what it really says.  As a result, the policies become a stagnant accumulation of a policy development event, rather than a dynamic document that creates alignment and coherence in the college.
  • The board creates additional operational policy that is generally prescriptive in nature and not “model-compliant”, thus creating incoherence in the boundaries between the Board and the college’s administration.
  • The college administrator continues to drive the agenda of the Board, but now with some input from the Board Chairman.  However, there is little difference in the flow of agendas with the exception that a consent agenda is used.
  • Little or no monitoring of policy has occurred.
  • The board has not developed its “process” skills to get to the heart of Policy Governance.

Phase 2: 
New trustees enter the picture requiring a renewed focus on the policy manual or it is time for the strategic planning cycle of the college.  Through this renewed look at the vision of the college and its relationship to Ends policy, the Board begins to question how strategic planning interfaces with ends policy development.  It is at this point that the Board signals a readiness for the next phase of evolution because they now recognize an incompatibility or incoherence between traditional practices and the intellectual understanding of the Policy Governance model.

Predictable Outcomes of Phase 2:

  • An audit of the board’s policy manual shows significant deviation from the Policy Governance structure and format.
  • An audit of the board’s process confirms that the whole board’s understanding of Policy Governance has not progressed with the passage of time.
  • A discussion about the Ends policies reveals that the initial attempt at ends did not capture the key element that ends are about outcomes for the beneficiary, rather than about “us”.  This discussion also reveals that there is not a common understanding of who is an owner and who is a customer.

Phase 3: The Board becomes aware that the proactive power of Policy Governance is based in an understanding that existing policy drives everything in the college.  The board’s awareness of alignment of policy, linkage with the owners and the need to further develop Ends policy turns the board’s attention to the full shift of Policy Governance way of being.  It is in this phase that the Board begins to practice rational governance with an ability to sustain the vision of the college through the integrity of governance.  The awareness happens as a result of the Board’s challenging its own assumptions about issues of governance. 

Predictable Outcomes of Phase 3:

  • The board governs intentionally, challenging its own assumptions about what the owners value.
  • Policy development drives the agenda; existing policy drives the organization.
  • Focus on development and discernment of ends policies is on every board agenda, creating a dynamic substantive linkage between the community and the college.
  • The board evaluates development of new Executive Limitations (means) Policy based on their “worry list” as operational issues present themselves.
  • CEO Performance Evaluation is conducted in a coherent, rational way, using monitoring methods that are systematic, data-based and meaningful.
  • The board pursues new approaches in their deliberative process that allows the group to “think together”.

Phase 4:  The  board faces a dilemma of perpetuating Policy Governance as new members join the board, when the champion for the model passes the torch to new leadership, and when a new president is hired who is not familiar or comfortable with the model.  This phase is characterized by worry about the fate of Policy Governance in the college, fear of returning to old ways, and a need for every member to “take ownership” of the board’s intentional way of doing things.

Predictable Outcomes for Phase 4:

  • The board’s orientation program is for the whole board, no longer for the new members only.
  • The board recognizes the need to identify and groom new leadership for the board.
  • The board renews its commitment to Policy Governance and begins to focus its life cycle on the role of education in the community and the future impacts the college can create for the whole community.
  • The whole board knows every policy in the policy manual, because of  its continuous reference to existing policy in all its deliberations and the systematic monitoring of compliance with existing policy and progress toward ends.

The nature of stages of development is that you MUST pass through the stage in order to progress positively.  If you skip a stage, you will experience dysfunction.  

So is it possible to shorten the duration of these stages of development?  Here are some tips to assist in the process.

  • Adopt and follow this Governance Process Policy, typically found in Governing Style Policy verbiage.

    “The board will enforce upon itself whatever discipline is needed to govern with excellence.  Discipline will apply to matters such as attendance, preparation for meetings, policymaking principles, respect of roles, and ensuring the continuance of governance capability. Although the board can change its governance process policies at any time, it will observe them scrupulously while in force.

    “In accordance with this discipline, the board will only allow itself to address a topic after it has answered these questions:
    1. Whose issue is this?  Is it the Board’s or the Executive Director’s?
    2. Has the board dealt with this subject in a policy?  If so, what has the board already said on this subject and how is this issue related?  If the board has already addressed the matter, does the board wish to change what it has already said?
    3. If the matter is several levels below board level, what is the broadest way to address this issue so that it is still under existing board policy?  Does that policy suffice to deal with our concern?

“It is out of order for board members to talk about content until these questions of appropriateness are settled.”

  • Adopt the following policy, recognizing that EVERYTHING on the agenda should be categorized according to how it relates to, or will result in, policy development.  This will create continuous focus on policy development.

    Meeting Agenda Planning:
    Board meeting agendas will be planned by the Board Chair, based on the annual calendar of the Board and will follow the format below:
    • Approve agenda
    • Consent Agenda (CEO constructed)
    • Board Consent Agenda, including Approval of the Minutes and Receipt of Monitoring Reports (creating a public record that the board is doing its job by monitoring operations)
    • Public Comment (with no or minimal response from the Board)
    • Ends Policy Discussion
      • Based on Annual Plan of Board Work
    • Board-CEO Linkage
    • Executive Limitations Policy Discussion (initiated by monitoring reports or as a result of new college initiatives)
      • New worries that have not been addressed previously
    • Governance Process/Ownership Linkage Policy Discussion
      • Who do we need to hear from, in the community, that has an impact on our consumers?  Do we have a conflicting impact on those consumers or a synergistic impact?  How can we align our efforts for greater impact?
      • Board self assessment against a specific Board means policies
    • Announcements
    • Adjournment

“Throughout the year, the board will attend to consent agenda items, containing all operational reports, as expeditiously as possible. “

  • Identify an internal “Carver Coach” or hire a trained Policy Governance consultant to assist in the skill development and intentionality of the Policy Governance model, observing and facilitating the board in its process.  The result of this role is not to absolve the entire board of ultimate responsibility for seeing that the new governance model is used consistently, but to notice inconsistencies of board behavior in its commitment to rational, coherent governance.