Saturday, November 27, 2010

Board to Death

I recently got the following email from a person in distress about how her community was being governed. After hearing what I had to say about options in organizational structure at a workshop, she wrote:

You mentioned that a community could allow everyone to be on the Board and still satisfy the bylaws. Could you provide more details about how to create that? My group uses consensus and there's tension between the Board and the group.
It's not hard to do. Most communities are legally structured as corporations and the law (established on the state level, but remarkably similar in most cases) requires you to have a board and officers. You can simply make every member of the community automatically a member of the Board, and then make the officer positions titular (that is, you give them no power). Under this structure, all the power rests with the plenary (meetings of the whole), or its designates.

To be clear, I am not advocating that all decisions be made in plenary; only that there be a clear understanding that all power resides there. Once a group gets past a certain size (6-8?) it generally works better if quite a bit of the group's work is delegated to managers or committees. At a slightly larger size (12-15?) it typically works well to have a particular subgroup, let's call it the Steering Committee, that handles coordinating functions and is available to exercise power on behalf of the group in case of emergencies—which is something that should not happen often, yet is nice to have in place ahead of need. As I envision it, the two main functions of the Steering Committee would be to draft plenary agendas and monitor tasks, troubleshooting as needed.

In the context of a community that uses consensus, one of the big problems with an active Board (if it's a subgroup, and not a committee of the whole) is that you effectively have two governing bodies (the community and the Board) and it can be a nightmare sorting out which body has power over what decisions. The most common division attempted in such arrangements is that the Board handles financial and legal functions, and the community oversees social functions. However, many issues don't sort themselves that cleanly into one category and it gets to be a real mess. (Imagine that a couple of community kids get into mischief and damage several air conditioners in the
neighborhood by pouring sand into the vents. One neighbor calls the police and files a formal complaint. How much of this issue will be tackled by the community, and how much by the Board?)

Goldoni wrote a play a few centuries back, a farce entitled The Servant of Two Masters. The humor is based on the ridiculous situations that a servant can get into when trying to please two masters who have differing ideas about what the servant should be doing and never discuss how to coordinate their requests. In my experience, communities that simultaneously try to operate by consensus and under the aegis of an active Board also tend to be a farce. It's much better, in my view, to have a single government—whether it be a community council composed of carefully selected members, or a plenary that operates by consensus—than to attempt employing both, where each trips over the others' feet.

I feel our Board does not represent our community; it is acting separately. Five households recently received a letter from a Board member that was an attempt to enforce a pet policy agreed on five years ago. In my view, this policy is outdated and no longer fit the needs of many members. On top of its being out-of-date, not all members of the Board saw it before it was sent out. How best can we respond in this situation?

Now the story gets more complicated, and I want to attempt to tease out the threads. While I'm a big fan of consensus, let's suppose the inquirer's group was persuaded of the folly of dual governments and decided to abandon consensus in favor of being fully governed by an elected Board (a representative democracy).

Issue #1: Good Representation
It can't be a good sign that a substantial portion of the membership feels that the Board does not represent their views. This raises a bunch of questions:

o How carefully were Board members chosen? (In general, it's highly valuable that a Board have balanced representation, such that everyone in the group feels there's at least one Board member that is easily accessible to them and understands their perspective. Note however, that "understanding one's perspective" is not necessarily the same as agreeing with one's thinking.)

o How good a job is the Board doing of educating itself about what community members think about the issues that the Board is wrestling with?

o How well does the Board make clear to community members the rationale for its positions, and why they believe their actions are in the group's best interests?

Issue #2: Updating Agreements
Maybe the 2005 pet policy needs to be reviewed for how well it fits the community today. Do community members know by what pathway policies can be reviewed and altered? The fact that the correspondent believes the pet policy to be outdated does not necessarily mean that all community members feel that way, or even a majority. Absent an agreement to change the policy, the old one stays in effect.

Issue #3: Board Members Going Rogue
While Sarah Palin is trying to breathe life into her ersatz political career by entitling her recent book, Going Rogue, for the most part there's a problem if someone attempts to arrogate to themselves the power of a governing body that they have not consulted with before acting. If that's actually what happened in this instance (as the correspondent implies), then it appears that the Board member may have overstepped their authority, and there needs to be a way to address that.

On the other hand, it might be a good idea to check with other Board members about the possibility that: a) consulting did happen, just not in plain view; or b) the Board member who wrote the letter had been authorized by the Board to handle pet policy matters without consulting. I'm not saying that their action was smart; I'm only cautioning that it may not have been bad process. Check your facts.

In summary, the correspondent may have a real problem with the group's pet policy, yet that might continue even if the Board were the whole group. You may also have a problem with how to handle the situation where someone perceives agreements to have been broken. Changing the governance system will not make these issues go away—though it may help provide a clearer pathway for dealing with them.

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