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Mar 1, 2013

Policy Governance Should Not Be An Excuse for Diligence

The Board of Columbus Public Schools is in the midst of a scandal.  The State Auditor has found extensive falsification of student test scores, leaving a mis-impression that the school system is doing a much better job than the facts support.  The Board has been very defensive and has rejected any role by outsiders.  It even paid six-figure sums to a law firm to essentially duplicate the review being done by the State Auditor.  Its excuse for persisting in its response is that it is just following best practice by adopting John Carver’s model of Policy Governance.®

My greatest concern is that Policy Governance® has become an excuse rather than a tool.  It is the creation of John Carver, whose primary intent was to have a board focus its involvement on its areas of competence and to leave management details to management.  No one can argue with this.  The problem I see with boards that try to use policy governance is that the concept is highly theoretical and fairly difficult to use in reality.  In an attempt to be a “good” board, I see too many step away as if getting into detail is a deadly third rail.

I believe that boards, and especially public and nonprofit boards, have just three duties.

  1. Develop a strategic plan that is sustainable and ensure that the resources necessary are available, including not must money but also skills, contacts, relationships, and service providers.
  2. Support the CEO so s/he is successful.  That of course requires supportive statements, but more importantly it means identifying the skill gaps the CEO has and fill those gaps through training, coaching, or targeted hiring of staff with complementary skills.  When a CEO fails, I believe the board has failed.  I am disappointed when boards refuse to acknowledge their role when a CEO fails.
  3. A board has a fiduciary duty to oversee management.  This third role somewhat contradicts the first two and this is where too many boards misinterpret the intent of Policy Governance.®  This is best done episodically, perhaps at pre-determined times on an annual cycle.  “Nose In/Fingers Out” (NIFO) is a good mnemonic.  A board must have a skeptical review periodically.  I believe that if it is one or two pre-scheduled reviews rather than a routine function of every board meeting the conflict with #2 can be contained.

But it is an abdication of duty for a board to limit itself to a cheerleading role.  That is where the Columbus school board fails.  It appears to be an uncritical supporter of the Superintendent.  When State Auditors, and possibly the FBI, get involved, it is time for a board to confront the fact that it has failed.  Since the loyalty should be to the organization and its mission — which means the kids for a school system — outside help and suggestions should be welcomed.

Did we learn anything from the Penn State scandal?  Same issue, same problem, same response.  Policy Governance became an excuse.  No matter how good our intent, boards must ensure they attend to #3, their fiduciary duty to oversee.  That doesn’t mean going overboard and becoming persistent critics.

I like to use the term “a culture of supportive inquiry” to indicate that asking hard questions is the main duty of a board but it should have a tone and intent of making the CEO and the organization better, not brow beating them.  Please reread Chapter 1 “Role of the Board” in More Than Just Money.  And on page 122 you can find out why I quote the following from John Carver: “How can a group of peers be a responsible owner-representative, exercising authority over activities they will never completely see toward goals they cannot fully measure, through jobs and disciplines they will never master themselves?  How can they fulfill their own accountability while not … infringing … on the creativity … of management?”

Boards need to make sure they have answered John Carver’s question.  The Columbus School Board may have attended training on his approach, but they have not found a good enough answer to his question.