I’ve been teaching “governance” for several decades, and often the people attending these classes are unclear as to just what “governance” is all about compared to “government” or “governing.” 

To start, “government,” a noun, means the body of persons authorized to exercise various powers to direct and supervise public affairs.  In the United States and in many other countries, governments practice governance in a manner consistent with democratic principles. “Governing,” is a verb meaning to conduct the policy, actions and affairs of a government or other organization. It is the means by which boards and commissions in public and private organizations “govern;” that is, the means by which they lead, oversee and exert control on an organization.

“Governance,” though, is a noun meaning the system in organizations by which decisions are made, authority is delegated, and accountability for outcomes and actions is achieved. 

Boards are solely responsible for the success of their governance processes, not the staff. My consulting and teaching services focus on helping governmental and not-for-profit boards and commissions govern well through efficient, effective and democratic governance processes so they can accomplish important things, make great decisions and are accountable to their “owners” or communities of interest.  

  “Good governance” requires that board members understand the board’s job and their own jobs as board members. Most boards are expected to provide strategic direction and resources, oversee operations, and avoid undesirable outcomes. Boards prioritize how much time they spend on these functions based on the organization’s needs and the preferences of their stakeholders. 

People serving on a governing board for the first time can understandably struggle to understand the board’s role and how board members appropriately and effectively participate in the governance process. Board members with prior board experience may understand some of the elements of governance, but their mental models of what governance should look like might be poorly aligned with a different organization’s purpose, culture, capacity or competencies.

A board’s governance may be poorly aligned with their organization’s needs when it focuses on trivial matters that are better left to staff or committees, rather than on strategic issues essential for the organization’s success in an ever-changing world.  Internal politics or poor access to essential information may delay decisions or create undesirable outcomes.

In collaboration with staff and with meaningful input from constituents, stakeholders, and the communities they represent, governing boards that govern well provide clarity as to what the organization should be accomplishing at a strategic level (the vision and mission) and articulate principles by which the organization should operate (its values). Good governance means that the board “speaks with one voice” through adopted policies and procedures that make expectations clear and provide benchmarks by which progress can be monitored and accountability is established.

Prior to making decisions or acting, boards that govern well provide all board members equal opportunities to influence board decisions and work toward achieving a strong consensus.  Just what matters are appropriate for the board to own, versus delegating authority to someone else, depends on legal requirements, board size and composition, expertise, time sensitivity of an issue, and whether the board wants to hold itself or someone else accountable for the outcome. Nonetheless, clarity as to roles and responsibilities is essential to achieve and maintain trust, efficiency and accountability.

Good governance enables boards to effectively respond to changing circumstances and opportunities, correct unintended policy interpretations, clarify roles and responsibilities, and establish and maintain accountability. Good governance provides the means by which board members fulfill their fiduciary duties. 

I’d be honored with the opportunity to discuss with you how your governing board can reach its highest potential.  You can click on the “Contact Larry” link to send me a message

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