Education & Government
Jennifer Rose Hale Image
Jennifer Rose Hale
Former Client Partner, Texas Association of School Boards

The pressure on public board members — and how to alleviate it

October 13, 2023
0 min read
The pressure on public board members — and how to alleviate it

When someone first runs for or is appointed to a public board — either a school board or another type of government council — they may imagine turning a longtime passion for civics into meaningful service, using their voice and their vote to make a difference. While this dream can come true, the daily experience and reality of service can quickly quash those idealized visions.

With office come worried parents and citizens, stressful issues around school safety or health, floods of data, and decisions that satisfy some but rarely all. And board members are not allowed a single wrong step: Public scrutiny and accountability to school districts, state and federal governments mean someone is always watching.

Board members need help making data-driven decisions under serious pressure, and they can find that help in how they approach their work and the technology that supports them.

The challenges public board members face

At the heart of their mission, board members are responsible for governance: for looking strategically at what a school district or municipality needs and focusing on the facts, policies and decisions that will elevate their organization to the best it can be. However, the many responsibilities board members face can be complicated by issues both familiar and uniquely modern.

In longstanding challenges, small and local governments have always struggled with making budgetary ends meet. These issues peaked during the pandemic of the early 2020s, but local governments continue to face aging infrastructure, changing technology demands, staffing crises and more. Affordable housing has become a key issue for city councils, and the demand for sustainability has both cities and schools looking to make large-scale infrastructure changes that require upfront investments for distant payoffs.

In public education, student performance — particularly calls for improvement —have been one of many pressures on school board members. Boards must address educational challenges, from adapting to new teaching technologies to closing achievement gaps and ensuring the safety of students and staff.

Additionally, constituents increasingly expect accessibility to their boards through public meetings, town halls and social media, requiring elected officials to be savvier about public relations. Citizens today have higher expectations for transparency, accountability and responsiveness from their elected officials.

Through all of these traditional challenges, schools and cities must be ready to adapt to legal and regulatory changes that are handed down from state and federal governments.

New demands on board members

Other issues have taken on new complexity in recent years. Political polarization, which has trickled down from the national level to state and local governments, has turned Disney movies into classroom controversies and created rifts among board members that make achieving consensus harder. (City councils may experience their own media-related conflict.)

Different ideas and new information around social justice and climate change have turned these issues into significant challenges for local governments. School boards and local governments are expected to address issues related to racial disparities, housing, security and more. Similarly, local governments are expected to take action to mitigate and adapt to environmental challenges — ones that may directly impact infrastructure.

High-profile incidents of school and public violence have demanded both response and action from boards, adding more pressure to decision-making.

These issues collectively create a challenging environment for public school board members and local government council members, requiring them to be adaptable, responsive and innovative in their roles as public servants.

How boards can alleviate pressure

It is within board members’ power to reduce the stress of service and ensure the highest-quality governance of their organizations. In many cases, technology can help.

Expedite the policy process

Board members are expected to know current policies and respond quickly to the demand for policy updates — demand spurred by trends, technology innovations, national events and more.

By housing updated policies as well as new drafts in board management software, board members always know where to find the correct information. This can be especially helpful when handling complaints that span multiple years, when previous versions of policies were in effect.

Provide a single source of truth

Even today, many board members still find themselves drowning in paper, or consulting different sources of emails, shared drives, texts, websites and other sources to get their questions answered. Having the entire team on the same page can speed the board deliberation process and make decision-making simpler.

Using a single tool to publish and store meeting agendas, past meeting minutes, policy manuals, strategic plans, goal information and orientation or training resources saves time, confusion and searching.

Empower the public to answer their own questions when appropriate

Making information accessible to the public not only saves time and helps board members be more effective and efficient, but it can diffuse potential flashpoints of conflict. Diana Freeman, Diligent Senior Manager, Modern Governance Advocacy & Intiatives, says, "Being familiar with the information and background on a topic helps you react better and not get caught off guard. When something catches us off guard we tend to become defensive. Rather than defensiveness, we can respond to questions in a welcoming way, offering to share information and pointing them to a place where documents are accessible to the public."

Let technology do its job

Technology has provided a number of efficiency solutions over the years. Board members should focus on tools that allow access on any device, anywhere. Processes that require involvement from multiple people can benefit from automated notifications, workflow tracking and other features that reduce the risk of bottleneck.

Getting help with board responsibilities

Boards have an enormous amount of responsibility, and are at the front lines of changing demands from the public and higher-level governments. As they manage budgets, policies, strategic plans, infrastructure and more, a heavy weight rests upon their shoulders.

By looking at the tools boards use — and particularly all-in-one board management software — board members can help themselves do the best possible job. Diligent understands the many pressures that fall on board members, and we designed Diligent Community to alleviate those pressures and help them focus on what matters.


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