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Governance Boards and Working Boards – the right tool for the job

A board is a board is a board.


Not so fast.


Anyone who has worked in the governance space for any length of time probably knows and understands the differences between governance boards and working—or operational—boards. One type sets high-level direction, while the other is much more involved in getting the work done. Both are important and effective, but only if deployed in the correct circumstance.


Seeing the members of a governance – or policy – board trying to operate in a role that calls for front-line effort to be carried out quickly identifies that the efficiency of the board is rapidly diminished. Likewise, when members of a working board are asked to operate in a purer governance capacity, there is sand that quickly appears in the gears of effectiveness.


Using the right tool for the job is critical, however there’s an insidious problem with that. Often times, the words we use to describe how the board is constructed and what it’s supposed to do are similar for both types of boards.


Governance and policy boards both have board members, trustees, councillors. Both have executive directors, CEOs, or CAOs. Depending on the circumstance and the formal rules, these roles have very different requirements.


So far, the discussion has been binary – policy governance boards vs. operational working boards. Rarely is that difference black and white; much more often it’s various shades of gray. Rarely is there a pure policy board or a pure working board, even at the municipal order of government.


Often the establishment of the board sees elements of both ends of the continuum baked into the organizational makeup. A governance board may ask its members to be part of some operational tasks, or a working board might require its members to spend some energy in setting the organization’s long-term strategy.


We see this very clearly in local government boards – or councils as they are known. These boards are established by provincial or territorial legislation, and they are created as pure policy boards. As such, the members of these boards; the mayors, reeves, wardens, councillors, and the like, are supposed to spend their time in meetings, determining strategy, setting policy, and maybe supervising a manager or sometimes two. In turn, these managers are fascinated by what their council has requested and spend their days doing the will of council.


This idealized state is both impractical and ineffective. When providing council orientations or mid-term refreshers, I talk about how elected officials do get involved in operations because they are the face of the municipal structure. It is the elected people who receive questions out in the community, and it’s them flipping pancakes on Canada Day. In a similar way, the operational people in the municipal structure get involved in governance to some extent. It’s not the council members who write bylaws and policy, it’s the staff. It’s up to council to approve, adapt, or rescind these documents, but they don’t usually write them.


As several provinces and territories approach election season over the next six months, the consideration of governance boards vs working boards, and the roles of elected officials vs administrators is something that may require quite a lot of focus so that council tire kickers really understand the role before they sign on the dotted line before the deadline for nominations has passed.


As a municipal leader, how do you address misconceptions about what councils do versus what some members of the community think they do?

As always, you can reach me at ian@strategicsteps.ca

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