Ensuring Governance Continuity

ARTICLE | Feb 12, 2017

A Process That Works

One of the key characteristics of good governance is that it is sustainable through periods of significant change. Certainly, new board members have the ability to alter the desired outcomes of the organization as the operational environment and other key inputs change.

The governance methodology, however, should withstand even significant variations in board and staff makeup. Those of us who are ICMA members need look no further than our own organization to see the value of this governance continuity and a methodology to achieve it.

A Stable Process

The ICMA Executive Board, by design, experiences a one-third change in its membership each year. This provides a nice mix of tenures, allowing for both new ideas and energy, while retaining support for existing direction.

During 2016, ICMA experienced the appointment of a new chief executive officer and new executive board staffing. Extremely talented and senior staff left and new ones came on board, but the governance process remained stable. Everyone understood his or her role and stayed within it. No time or energy was wasted in posturing or pomposity.

Even in the face of change, this stability does not happen by accident, or depend on the personalities of the board or the staff. ICMA has a clear and well-trod path for transferring its legacy building.

Each year at the annual conference, a new board orientation is conducted, helping the newly elected members get acquainted with the holdover members and understand current processes. Through a facilitated process, the new board also invests the time to review ICMA's strategic plan and then alters or recommits major objectives.

The value of this thoughtful stability has both obvious and some not-so-observable benefits:

• Board members feel immediately recognized, engaged, and valued.

• Organizational priorities are maintained.

•Staff members throughout the organization do not have to stop their activities or go to "neutral" while board personalities and priorities are understood.

• Ancillary parties—related organizations or subsidiary groups—retain confidence in leadership.

• Funding partners are assured that long-term plans will not be cavalierly discarded.

Weathering Ups and Downs

While this level of competent governance handoff is to be expected from well-led and well-managed major membership-based organizations like ICMA, it is also achievable in communities. In fact, local governments that govern competently are often the ones most commended by outside groups.

We, as local government professionals, more than most, appreciate that surprises and even upsets happen via the ballot box. With a process in place to immediately engage and orient new members on organizational process, these ups and downs can be weathered in such a way as to demonstrate to all observers that the organizational leadership remains professional.

In order for this governance stability to occur, the organization must have clear, understood, and followed procedures. Ideally, these processes are written and adopted and are used with the major subsidiary boards and commissions as well so that members who come from those bodies recognize them and are already familiar with the language.

Then, all new governing body members must be quickly oriented and trained in their use. Further, the staff must understand and abide by the processes as well.

With the methodologies of governance in place, the attention of the board can then shift quickly to the things that matter in terms of resource allocation and outcome achievement. It is this meaningful work that most elected officials ran for office to engage in, and the new board orientation can serve as a springboard to this arena.

Building Capacity

If you already have a process like this in place, congratulations!

If you are on the other end of the spectrum and each new election or change in staff leadership causes major angst within the organization, take heart. By starting slowly and proceeding one step at a time, you can build your governance capacity.

Finally, if, as I suspect, you are somewhere in between these two extremes, engage your governing body and your key staff in a conversation about what you are doing that works well, and in what areas you might want to try something new.

Like ICMA, you, too, can get to the point where you can turn over a third of your governing body and still function in a high-performing, best-practice manner.


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