Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Perfect Form of Governance

The “perfect form of governance” does not exist. All forms of governance have their pluses and minuses, and like a strategy, how it well it is implemented is a greater determinant of success than how good the strategy was to begin with. So with all due respect to those who question Policy Governance and the UUA Board’s move to it, there is nothing inherently wrong with Policy Governance in a Unitarian Universalist context. While I agree our convoluted organizational structure would give pause to ANY system of governance, the more I get to know the Carver model, the more I like it.

Five years ago I experienced the implementation of “policy-based governance” in my home church – and while I was somewhat put off by the “thou shalt nots” and the work that went into creating really fluffy ENDS, anything that would move the Board from meetings that went to 11 pm and dealt with far too much trivia seemed like a really good idea. We called it “policy-based” because we did some picking and choosing of the Carver principles, and Carver is a little sensitive about that. But we didn’t really understand the power of the model – I say “we” because I spent five years on the executive team so am guilty as charged.

Several weeks ago Rev. Dan Harper posted some thoughtful reasons why the Carver model was inappropriate for a membership organization, the first because “it is the membership who set policy, not the Board, which means that you cannot follow the Carver model of having the Board set policy (which is what the UUA is trying to do here).”

I agree a voting membership like the General Assembly complicates things, but shareholders in for-profit organizations vote as well, and do not change the need for a board to establish policies. While the GA process results in a number of key positions and priorities, the idea that this non-representative body (I wish it were representative) researches, creates, vets, revises, and refines the large body of policies for the UUA is a stretch. The level of thought put into most of what is ultimately brought to the plenary sessions is usually Board-driven, other than actions of immediate witness. The policies they do approve bind the Board and staff, who typically create a lot more context for implementation. I also suggest almost all of the General Assembly actions are "means" rather than Board-established "ends". Carver’s model sets three roles for the Board: linkage (communication) with owners, setting ENDS, and monitoring: GA delegates do a partial job on the first two within the confines of a few days, change from year to year, and may or may not represent the wishes of their congregations.

One of the further criticisms of Policy Governance is that it does not hold the executive (in our case the President) sufficiently accountable. I would have agreed with this statement before I learned about the relatively new monitoring methodology from consultant Susan Stratton, who has been working with the UUA Board. The monitoring reports my church team churned out monthly were filled with stuff, and we got very little response from anyone on them. This new methodology addresses not only accountability, but my hang-up: fluffy ENDS. It turns out that is the point: “ends” should be broad to allow management to interpret them with as much creativity as possible.

So the first thing the executive team (CEO/President) does is interpret the "fluff", giving concrete definitions, scope, and tangibility to those broad statements. And then tells you in concrete terms why that interpretation is a reasonable one for that church/organization, environment, time in the life of the universe. And then results! Not activities (“we did this many workshops, held this many worship services” – what Carver consultants call “wingflaps”) but results that measure whether or not we are getting to the goals set by the Board.

This is very counterculture. And while some of it is just plain good management from the for-profit world (like measuring results rather than effort) it demands an accountability that most non-profits – and churches – do not have.

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