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Policy Governance® in a Nutshell 

Leadership is an important, yet elusive concept. It takes on different forms in different settings. The intent of Policy Governance® is to give operational definition to "leadership" as it applies in the specific context of a governing Council. It addresses the questions: "How can a group of peers be a responsible owner-representative, exercising authority over activities they will never completely see, toward goals they cannot fully measure, through jobs and disciplines they will never master themselves? How can they fulfill their own accountability while not, at the same time, infringing unnecessarily on the creativity and prerogatives of management? How can they do so when within themselves they disagree, there is a limited time for the task, and there is an unending stream of organizational details demanding inspection?"

All fields of endeavor encounter their peculiar dilemmas and challenges. It is common in natural development of any pursuit for experience to yield helpful tips and shortcuts. To the extent a field continues to advance, frameworks or paradigms of thought develop in which the principles and concepts provide more effective guidance than tips ever can. Management as a social science has certainly seen such a growth over the centuries - most strikingly in the past few decades. Technologies of management from time-and-motion, to MBO, to CPM, to Total Quality have characterized the rapidly growing integrity of the management function.

But while the performing function (management) has undergone impressive growth in this century, the purposing function (governance) has remained the least developed element in enterprise, typically the orphan of management more than its master. This is true in business, nonprofit and governmental bodies, though the typical flaws differ some from one setting to the other. We regularly accept a level of mediocrity in board or Council process that would never be accepted in management. Policy Governance is a departure from that primitive state of conceptual development. It is a radical redesign of Council leadership that makes new sense of the Council-staff relationship, planning, evaluation, and all other aspects of the Council job. Unlike virtually every other approach to the Council challenge, Policy Governance is a conceptually coherent model, intended as a complete replacement of the deeply flawed traditional wisdom about Councils.

In light of the leadership opportunities made possible by Policy Governance, governance as traditionally and widely practiced in all settings appears ill conceived, ineffective, and wasteful. Watching a City Council, school board, social service board, or trade association board reveals varying degrees of ritual, rework, trivia, and failure to act as a group. Our missions and our own integrity demand that Councils govern rather than either rubber stamp or meddle. Our busy lives demand that time, energy and wisdom be well used and that City Council and management should both be optimally empowered in their work.

The message of Policy Governance is not that individual Councils should work harder toward what has long been held out as the ideal for Council behavior, but that the ideal itself is flawed. By far most literature currently available to help Councils is written within the patchwork ideas of the past. Books, articles, course work, seminars, consultants, and associations teach outdated forms of governance we should have discarded long ago. This is a primitive field, indeed.

And it means that school boards, City Councils, corporate boards, social service boards, trade association boards and a host of others are wasting the bulk of their potential leadership and wasting their operational staff resource due to inadequate leadership(whether laissez faire or intrusive). It means that virtually all sources to which they turn for help only assist in miring them more deeply in outdated governance ideas. Thus it is that most Council training is merely teaching Councils how to do the wrong things better than they did them before.

It has long been said that Councils should stick to making policy and leave administration to managers. But conceptual development of principles and rules for policy making has been scant, consisting mostly of ideas inappropriately borrowed from internal management rather than crafted for the specialized role of governance. Policy Governance, as its name implies, is about governing by policy, but it is policy of a more sophisticated nature than policy as we have heretofore loosely defined it. It has also long been said that Councils should be (a) more involved and (b) more arm's-length. The truth is that Councils should be more involved in some things and less involved in others. Only a creditable model - not anecdotal wisdom - can reliably and powerfully help a City Council and its City Manager know which is which.

The model is a thorough working theory of Council leadership that cannot be fully presented in a brief exposure. Nevertheless, here are a few of its basic tenets. Let's begin with the purpose of any governing Council's job:
The purpose of [1] the Council’s job is, [2] on behalf of some ownership, [3] to see to it that the organization[4] achieves what it should and [5] avoids what is unacceptable.

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