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September 2, 2020

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Rose Mercier

The Board’s Policy Manual – An Essential Tool

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the board’s essential tool in Policy Governance® is its policy manual. After all, it is “Policy” Governance. However, you might be surprised to learn that a board can control and direct the entire organization in a relatively short document. Thirty or so pages is usually sufficient. 

This realization is welcome relief for boards whose previous policy manuals ran to hundreds of pages, and who may have drafted policies in response to crises, inadvertently created conflicting policies, and seldom scheduled regular policy reviews. In these circumstances, a policy manual usually lacks coherence and is likely only used on an “as-needed” basis. 

A Policy Governance board’s manual is a living document, a precise and comprehensive statement of its values about everything for which the board is accountable, which – in fact – is everything and everyone in the organization. It is a constant reference for every board decision and practice.  

All items on the board’s meeting agenda should be related to board policy. If it does this, the board easily recognizes why an item is on the agenda and knows what it has already said in its policies about the item. One regularly scheduled agenda item should be policy content review. I think John and Miriam Carver explained the reason for this practice best when they wrote: “…the policy manual’s utility is that it contains all of what a given board has said that is still in force. But this is only true if the manual is kept up to date.” 1 

Even though a board can amend any policy at any time, it should still maintain the discipline of continuous review. By doing this, the board’s policies stay current with its values and the organization’s circumstances. 

Along with regular review, your board needs to make sure it records its decisions about policy changes. This can be a bit of a puzzle sometimes. Following are helpful guidelines: 

  • If your board amends its policy in any way, it needs to record that decision in the minutes. 
  • If the amendment is minor, adding or deleting a phrase, the motion should include the full version of the amended policy statement. 
  • If the board has decided to add or replace a large part of a policy, or add a new policy, the motion should identify the name and number of the policy, the nature of the change, and that the revised (or new) policy is attached as an appendix to the minutes. The appendix then becomes part of the board’s official record. 
  • If after reviewing a policy, the board decides no change is needed – no motion is needed. The board’s minutes can record that it reviewed the policy and agreed no change was needed. If the board is not making a change, it does not require a motion to maintain the status quo. 
  • Incorporate any changes into the full manual as soon as practicable so that the board has ready access to the current version of its policies. 

The Policy Governance system of governance provides a board with a set of tools that enable it to govern effectively and efficiently. As is true of any tool used by craftsperson or artist, it must be kept sharp and ready for use. So too, must a board keep its policy manual current, coherent and comprehensive. Regular review, accurate record of changes, and timely updates will keep this essential tool fully ready for use at all times. 

1 John Carver and Miriam Carver. “Policy Governance and Staying on Track”. Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint. 2006 

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