The Role of Governance, or Nobody Here but Us Boneless Chickens

What I’m about to say may seem self-evident or even silly, but is more important than many people and organizations realize: never underestimate the power of effective policies and governance.

I am currently engaged with an incredibly talented and intelligent group of experts who have been charged with creating an online educational program for first responders in the fields of Health (Doctors, Nurses, Technicians), Psychosocial (which is to say Social Workers, Clergy, Psychologists) and Communications (Social and Traditional Media). The online course will promote interprofessional learning and provide opportunities for simulated responses to mock disasters through interactive games which would engage teams from around the world – the project has support from experts in the UK, Italy, the United States, Israel and others.  The project began with a core team of individuals meeting somewhat informally and has grown and gained momentum over the past few months. At one point, it was possible to hold the meetings and make decisions  somewhat informally, but this project has quickly achieved and surpassed the critical stage where more formal structures have to be introduced; the level of complexity of the tasks required has outpaced the ability of informal rules to keep up.

My job on this project, given my background in government policy and legislation and my role as a non-content-expert in any of the fields concerned, is not to contribute to the knowledge base of the project as much as it is to facilitate all aspects of project operations. My role is to ensure that the project maintains efficiency in decision making and has a sufficient level of documentation to support the project’s goals, as well as to create policies that ensure transparency and accountability for the project as a whole. Creating these policies, and the underlying structures to support them, has been a source of some consternation on the part of some team members, but ultimately they understand just how important good governance is to the project as a whole, and how I can make their jobs easier. My job is, to use my favorite metaphor, to put the bones into the boneless chicken.

This got me to thinking: why is governance – clear, effective structures and policies to tie them together – so important? An organization undertakes the development of such structures and policies for several reasons:

  1. Clarity: Any organization must have a clear chain of command; even groups which make decisions based on consensus must have a clear method of achieving it, and of achieving sufficient input from members. It is also important to know what happens when consensus doesn’t work, or is inappropriate. What does a vote look like? Is it a simple majority? Are some members excluded? It isn’t necessary to memorize Robert’s Rules of Order, but believe me, it helps if everyone knows how decisions are made and by whom.
  2. Efficiency: As in the example of the committee I am working with, there comes a time when the tasks at hand may become too broad for one group to tackle without getting bogged down in micromanaging the minutiae of day-to-day operations. When that time comes, it is important to know what individual or group of individuals will have responsibility for completing certain tasks and reporting back to the main committee. Letting smaller subcommittees or trusted individuals deal with smaller, more specialized items will make the work of any committee go much more smoothly.
  3. Transparency: This is particularly important when dealing with government or other granting agencies. Clear and concise policies can be crucial in spelling out who is responsible for what and when, and in de-mystifying the processes undertaken by project members to accomplish tasks such as purchasing or even disciplinary matters. The more complicated or arcane your methods are, the less confidence others are likely to have in regard to the integrity of your team. The more easily understood your rules, methods and responsible parties are, the better the impression you can give – and the more trust you gain.
  4. Accountability: Going hand-in-hand with #3, accountability is a must. Everyone must know and understand what their roles are and how that fits within the structure of the overall project. Roles and responsibilities must be well understood, as well as how they can work together most efficiently and effectively. For example, if two committees or teams within a large project need to interact because their mandates overlap, is it more effective to have a single liaison between the teams, or do they meet jointly? Clarifying such things as points of contact can save the potential time wasted by repeating the same actions multiple times in multiple settings and ensuring communication follows proper channels. Ideally, everyone knows what they are responsible for, who they should talk to if they need help in a particular area, and what the outcome of the project in relation to their role should look like. Accountability, besides contributing to external confidence as in #3, also can help morale within teams – everyone knows their role is important and that they are contributing in a meaningful way.
  5. Legacy: Like it or not, all of us won’t be here forever. If we want long-term projects to have any chance of success even with the inevitable change in personnel, policies and structures must be easily understood and maintained and revised when necessary (more on that in a moment). Coming from government, I can remember at least one instance when a particular course of action we had undertaken was questioned. Without a clear understanding of who made or implemented a decision, and the rationale for doing so, not to mention an adequate support structure, we were locked into performing a particular activity just because ‘it had always been done that way’. That was an embarrassing situation for someone like me, who took my role as a steward of the public trust very seriously. The situation stopped being transparent, or accountable, or even rational, because of the failure of institutional memory.

So, organizations undertake the development of a governance structure with the above in mind; can we say, however, that once the policies are written that the task of governance is complete? Of course we can’t. it is crucial that the policies and structures evolve with the task – policies should be ‘living’ documents that are dusted off on a regular basis and examined to ensure that they still meet the needs and more importantly support the goals of the project. This is, of course, the ideal case; often the policies are revised on a more urgent basis, in response to an unforeseen circumstance. One of the key points to remember when creating policies is that you must make it clear who is responsible for maintaining and updating the policy and how that is accomplished. It may seem a trifle self-referential or circular, but the ability to amend policies easily in response to unexpected events will inevitably prove very, very valuable.

During my career with the civil service in Nova Scotia, I had become an expert in legislative matters: from submitting requests to Cabinet to actually writing legislation and regulations (for which I was given a citation by the Department of Justice). Generally speaking, if things needed to be done in the area of legislation or procedure, I was the go-to guy. It was always exciting to me to be involved in the development of new legislation; the process of discussion among my colleagues and experts was always fascinating. One habit that can easily develop, however, is attempting to account for every possible scenario that could potentially occur under the legislation. It is a noble effort, but ultimately due to fail – humans make policies and laws, and humans are fallible. An Assistant Deputy Minister who was a friend and mentor to me during my time at labour and Advanced Education always stopped us going down the wrong path by calling upon the “alien scenario”. Quite simply, he would smile and look at us all feverishly thinking up scenarios and simply ask, “and what if an alien lands?” You simply cannot anticipate every scenario, no matter how far-fetched. We certainly did the best we could, and as it turns out did quite well in anticipating problems thanks to the expertise utilized along the way, but in the end we recognized that new and unexpected things can always arise when the rubber hits the proverbial road.

Recently, changes to provincial legislation have necessitated changes within organizations; specifically, health professions have had to adapt and change to become self-governing under omnibus health regulation legislation. While this is good news for the public and for professions, it places a burden on practitioners and administrators who may not be prepared to undertake the changes necessary; in particular, they may not be familiar with how effective policies and structures that will fulfill the requirements of government are created. When I joined the online education project, I was concerned at first because I didn’t understand all of the nuances that each specialty was bringing to the table – it was too much knowledge to absorb. It was a great relief to realize early on that my role is not to be an expert, but to facilitate the work of the real experts. It quickly becomes apparent just how important ensuring things run smoothly can be. The experts on the committee are the parts in the machine, but you are the grease that keeps things moving along. It may appear to be a ‘killjoy’ type of job, making sure the creative and intelligent folks toe the line – but there is a great satisfaction to be gained by seeing others being able to work to their full potential because of the stage you set for them.

That’s why I am so happy to be able to play that role – I and others at Monkeytree bring years of experience to the table, and that is something we take pride in, because it’s a role that I believe we play better than anyone else – putting the proverbial bones in the boneless chickens.

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