Policy Governance is an operating system for boards of directors. As with operating systems for computers, the system itself is not the point of the board’s work; the system simply provides an underlying framework on which boards can build further agreements and activities. Policy Governance does not mandate specific decisions, but does highlight the kinds of decisions a board should make. These decisions include agreements about how the board will work together, how the board will empower and hold accountable the cooperative’s management, how the board will articulate the cooperative’s purpose and set up the cooperative for movement in that direction, and how the board understands the role of member-owners and others in the governance of the cooperative.
The Policy Governance operating system is essentially an integrated set of principles – principles that gain their power when used together. Key to the principles is the meaning of the word “policy.” Within the context of Policy Governance, policies are the proactive articulation of values or principles that guide action.
Policy Governance principles:
• The cooperative is owned by its members. The board exists to act and make decisions on behalf of and in the best interest of the owners.
2. Position of Board
• The board is a distinct link in the chain of empowerment and accountability within the cooperative. The owners empower the board through the bylaws, and the board is accountable to owners for the success of the cooperative. In turn, the board empowers and holds management accountable, delegating authority to management through Ends and Executive Limitations policies.
3. Board Holism
• The authority of the board belongs to the whole. To say that the board “speaks with one voice” means that the board’s authority is a group authority. The “voice” of the board is expressed through the written policy decisions. Directors can work to persuade and influence the board in its deliberations and decision-making; beyond that, individual directors or subsets of the board have no authority to instruct staff.
4. Board Means Policies
• The board defines in writing its own job and how it operates. These decisions are agreements about the board’s means, categorized as Board Process policies and Board-Management Relationship policies.
5. Clarity and Coherence of Delegation
• The board unambiguously identifies the authority and responsibility of any person (e.g., GM or board president) or committee to whom the board delegates. No individual director, officer, or committee can be delegated responsibility that interferes with or duplicates responsibility delegated to the GM.
6. Ends Policies
• The board defines in writing the cooperative’s purpose in terms of: intended effects/benefits to be produced, intended recipients of those benefits, and (if desired) the intended cost-benefit or priority of those benefits. (Any decisions about issues that don’t fit the definition of Ends are means decisions.)
7. Executive Limitations Policies
• The board defines in writing its expectations about the means of the cooperative. Rather than prescribing board-chosen means, Executive Limitation policies define limits on operational means – essentially, defining boundaries on the GM’s authority. Executive Limitation policies describe means that are not allowed even if they are effective. The board retains the authority to make decisions that are outside of the GM’s authority.
8. Policy sizes
• The board decides the four types of policies first at the broadest, most inclusive level. The board can then further define each policy in further levels of detail until reaching a point at which the board can accept any reasonable interpretation of the written policy.
9. Any Reasonable Interpretation
• More detailed decisions about Ends and operational means are delegated to the GM, who has the right to use any reasonable interpretation of the board’s written policies. A reasonable interpretation will include more detailed and/or clarified meaning of the board’s policy, along with operational definitions (the metrics and benchmarks used to gauge accomplishment). More detailed decisions about board means (and the right to use any reasonable interpretation of those written policies) are delegated to the board chair – unless part of the delegation is explicitly directed to another officer or committee.
• The board must check to ensure that the cooperative has achieved (or made progress toward) the Ends while operating within the Executive Limitation boundaries. The board judges the GM’s interpretation and operational definition for reasonableness, and judges whether the data demonstrates accomplishment of that interpretation and operational definition. The ongoing monitoring of Ends and Executive Limitations policies constitutes the GM’s performance evaluation. The board must monitor its own performance according to the stated board means policies.
Policy Governance is a registered service mark of John Carver. For further information, see:
- Carver, John. Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations, third edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Policy Governance Source Document, International Policy Governance Association, policygovernanceassociation.org carvergovernance.com, the authoritative website for the Policy Governance model
- Policy Governance FAQ, sample policies, and many other resources in the Columinate Library, https://columinate.coop/library/ , #policy governance
- Goehring, Mark. “Taking Policy Governance to Heart,” Cooperative Grocer #141, (March/April 2009), https://www.grocer.coop/articles/taking-policy-governance-heart
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