Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

April 4, 2017


Rose Mercier

Imagine if…

News articles about public agencies can make for fascinating reading, particularly when they disappoint almost everyone who seems to have a stake in the organization’s performance, or if they have achieved status as a lead story. More often than not, it’s about lack of performance. In my home town,  there is an agency created by the municipal council which has been subject to considerable scrutiny for several years. Everyone – municipal council, municipal staff, citizen groups, various segments of the business community, seems to have strong opinions about the results that the organization was ‘supposed’ to deliver.

The organization’s board of directors, comprised of appointments by city council and individuals from the community, had developed a strategic plan with metrics that it considered markers of success. The trouble was that there didn’t seem to be much consensus in the community about the relevance or meaningfulness of the metrics. So it was no surprise that the performance of the organization and the CEO became the subject of much chatter. “Had the community received results worth the investment of taxpayer dollars?” Different community groups tried to obtain financial records so that they could determine if value was being delivered.

This scenario is no doubt reproduced in many towns and cities. Public agencies are a unique form of organization. However, none are so unique that Policy Governance wouldn’t support more effective governance. Consider the following:

  • Imagine if the board had engaged with different segments of the community – business leaders, community activists, educators, economists, youth and many others who were underemployed, community development groups, taxpayers, immigrants, etc. and had come to understand their priorities, values and perspectives about what they wanted for their community.
  • And then, imagine if the board reflected on what they heard and through deepening their understanding of relevant factors, translated what they had learned into a clearly crafted statement of benefits that the organization was to produce, who was to benefit, and the worth of producing those results.
  • Consider if the board, having given clear direction to the CEO (Ends policies, in the Policy Governance vernacular), along with the right to reasonably interpret that set of instructions and then held the CEO to account for producing measureable criteria of achievement justified by research, external comparators and/or external expertise, metrics that demonstrated progress and verifiable evidence that progress had been achieved.
  • I also think it would have been interesting if the board had translated the community’s clear values about transparency, community involvement, and diversity into limitations about financial conditions and activities, financial planning, asset management, treatment of the public – among some of the areas in which the board should clearly articulate ethically or prudentially unacceptable conditions. Then, imagine if the board also held the CEO to account for evidence that these policies (Executive Limitations) had been followed.

But, none of that happened, so everyone had their own ideas about the benefits that were to have been produced and who should have benefited. The only point of agreement seems to have been that it wasn’t a fair trade for the municipality’s citizens.

A two-year period of review ensued, using still more taxpayer dollars, with the final result being new governance and accountability guidelines for the agency. Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy, and it remains to be seen if the effort was worth the taxpayer dollars expended on this exercise. I am left to imagine what might have been if those two years had instead been spent vigorously pursuing a reasonable interpretation of clearly stated Ends.



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