This article by Susan Mogensen appears in Board Leadership Number 164, July-August 2019. Board Leadership is published by Wiley Subscription Services, a Wiley Company. For more information and to subscribe, visit wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/bl.
For those feeling that democracy as we have known it is under serious threat, or who yearn for vast improvements in how our democratic institutions work, know this: there is hope. Hope for creating a new and improved kind of democracy does not necessarily emanate from expectations around what might be accomplished via quick or dramatic changes to the “top” of our systems ⏤ e.g., new leadership, or constitutional changes ⏤ but rather from the evolution of good governance, leadership, and decision-making processes that are “bubbling up” from lower-level governing bodies. Local school boards, chambers of commerce, library boards, municipal councils and the like, are venues for meaningful democratic change that everyone can observe, access, and influence right now.
People are usually quick to react when corruption, injustice, and outrageous governance dysfunction rear their ugly heads, but often revert to a pattern of blaming people rather than rectifying the underlying systems and governance principles that permit (if not encourage) the festering blameworthy behaviours in the first place.
Rescuing democracy from the throes of corruption and decline, it’s key to be aware of a major contributing cause: apathy, and more specifically, the lack of general interest in governance processes. A recent article in Slate notes that, “There’s nothing Americans like less than detail-oriented bureaucracy. … there’s a lamentable tendency to see procedural violations as dull or unimportant.”1 Based on multiple variables across western democracies, Wikipedia notes apathy is on the rise: “… voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies…. [O]ther forms of political participation have also declined, such as voluntary participation in political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations.”2
The complacency challenge is real. People are usually quick to react when corruption, injustice, and outrageous governance dysfunction rear their ugly heads, but often revert to a pattern of blaming people rather than rectifying the underlying systems and governance principles that permit (if not encourage) the festering blameworthy behaviours in the first place.
Luckily, we do not suffer from a lack of knowledge, skills, and examples of how good governance ⏤ and by extension, more highly functioning public institutions ⏤ can work. Readers of Board Leadership over the years have witnessed, engendered, and participated in positive and meaningful governance changes within multiple types of governing bodies and organizations around the world. We know what is possible.
Of course, having knowledge and a vision is one thing; making it happen is another. It’s easy to despair when the vision is so clear, while achievement seems so elusive. As it often is for the greatest challenges people face, the solution is not to wait for one big miraculous event, but rather to undertake and habituate small, incremental changes over time. As Katie Kacvinsky wrote, (and many others, in multiple ways), “You need to be content with small steps. That’s all life is. Small steps that you take every day so when you look back down the road it all adds up and you know you covered some distance.”
Walter Shaub, former director of the United States Office of Government Ethics, recently made a similar point with respect to the importance of making small changes to improve democracy, tweeting, “I’ve thoroughly lost patience with Twitter Demoralizers posting sarcastic remarks asking what good minor actions do. While they’re waiting for the magic perfect action and dreaming of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, you’re taking small actions that build critically needed momentum.”3
Having experience specifically with board leadership and group facilitation in general, and Policy Governance® principles in particular, gives one a somewhat different but immensely valuable perspective on the challenges to good governance, and the requisite solutions. Better yet, boards today ⏤ particularly publicly elected boards ⏤ can use these tips and techniques now, thereby modelling what is possible when good governance and leadership practices are applied. The three suggestions for incremental governance improvements which follow are informed by theory and experience, and their application within the arena of publicly elected boards might cause the most rapid normalization of good governance processes that we can expect.
- Transform the Town Hall Meeting
Wikipedia notes that town hall meetings “can be traced back to the colonial era of the United States and to the 19th century in Australia.”4 While the intention of holding public events that allow some form of connection with political representatives is a good one, town hall meetings today have a tendency to become polarizing, acrimonious, and unproductive.
A typical town hall meeting today will include a presentation by the elected official(s), followed by a question-and-answer period with those in attendance. At a minimum, this format allows the representative(s) to share information and to be seen to be listening to the people he/she represents. In many cases, no doubt people feel better for having had their say, and elected representatives gain a greater appreciation for the issues on people’s minds.
At worst, the town hall format is a polarizing one, starting with the physical setup of the room with the representative up on a stage, facing the people seated in rows. During the question-and-answer period, attendees usually line up behind microphones, asking the representative one question at a time. The effect of televising or video recording these meetings can serve to encourage the boldest, angriest questions, creating a greater likelihood that responses are defensive and “stick to the script.”
The alternative is to create a much more productive public forum which engages people in dialogue with the representative and with each other. The field of facilitation overflows with processes and ideas on how to design meetings that improve information flow, develop understanding, enable sound decision-making, and create buy-in. To start, presentations can be streamlined, and circulated in advance or in writing. People can be seated comfortably at round tables, and guided by clear questions designed to elicit their values, ideas, and perspectives on key issues. Representatives can also take on more of a listening and facilitating role, always taking care to conclude each meeting with a clear action list.
2. Engage with People as Owners (rather than as Customers)
In Policy Governance, the emphasis for governing bodies is to root their authority in the moral/legal ownership, and draw input from this set of people on what the Ends (benefits, for whom, at what worth) should be. This foundational principle distinguishes the Policy Governance approach from practically all, if not all, other conceptions of governance, and requires boards to engage with owners on a level at which most people are unaccustomed.
Public life and commercial activities offer many examples of “stakeholder consultations,” and customer satisfaction kinds of questions. While obtaining this type of feedback is useful and, indeed, necessary, the type of consultation that people in governing positions must employ revolves around strategic, long-term, outward-looking questions, and those that drive at values and the criteria for making more specific decisions. Boards need to know what difference in the world their respective organizations must strive to create; how should which people benefit; are some benefits more important or have more worth than others; and so on. In a municipal setting, for example, what is most important: do people want the city to be safe? naturally beautiful and clean? thriving economically? culturally diverse and dynamic? How would the people rank the importance of these attributes?
Asking these types of questions ⏤ which require more in terms of conversation and dialogue with owners than do customer-level questions ⏤ helps to elevate public discourse, develops understanding between people, mitigates against polarizing exchanges, and provides meaningful value back to those with governing authority.
3. Inform, Educate, and Involve the People
Lastly, governing bodies must do more within their spheres of influence to inform, educate, and involve the people. The job of governing is not easy, but it does not need to appear so complex or boring that people don’t want to participate. Basic steps that many boards take already (required by law, or not) include hosting open meetings, posting relevant meeting and decision information online, and inviting public comment either during or between meetings.
Additional steps that boards and councils can take to create more engagement include inviting public meeting attendees to evaluate meetings based on markers of good governance processes. For example, did the board listen to or incorporate public input? Did Council members listen to and respect each other? Did board members demonstrate appropriate meeting decorum? Was there evidence of results or outcomes being achieved?
As people’s awareness of what good governance looks like improves over time, boards will ultimately raise expectations around what higher-level public institutions should be able to achieve, and increase the size and depth of the pool of people motivated and qualified to run for public office and board leadership positions of all kinds.
It has been said that to save democracy, we must change it. As microcosms of larger, public institutions, boards of directors are already contributing to meaningful changes in expectations and processes. Step by step, day by day, all of us can continue to apply good governance principles and practices to build a better world.
1Lili Loofbourow, “The GOP Has Its Final Anti-Abortion Victory in Sight,” Slate, May 14, 2019. https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/05/alabama-georgia-abortion-ban-supreme-court.html.
2Wikipedia. Voter Turnout. 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_turnout (accessed May 20, 2019).
3Shaub, Walter (@waltshaub). “I’ve thoroughly lost patience with Twitter Demoralizers posting sarcastic remarks asking what good minor actions do. While they’re waiting for the magic perfect action and dreaming of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, you’re taking small actions that build critically needed momentum.” May 19, 2019, 1:51 pm.
4Wikipedia. Town hall meeting. 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_hall_meeting (accessed May 20, 2019).