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The Diligent team
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What government boards need to know about governance best practices

January 10, 2018
0 min read
Government building and USA flag representing US government boards

If you think that only government employees comprise government boards, you might be surprised to find that you are wrong. In fact, many of the people on government boards, councils and commissions are everyday citizens with no board experience at all. In many respects, boards often welcome non-government people to their boards because they provide a fresh, independent perspective that can only come from the very people who are on the receiving end of laws and public policies. Government appointees don't have to be experts on the subject of the board's work ' they just have to have a vested interest. Of course, most government boards also have a fair number of government employees around the board table as well.

Interesting Background Information on Government Boards

Government boards exist at every level of government, and they work to resolve issues about numerous areas of government. Most government boards are created by federal, state, or local statutes, but some governing boards create their own boards for specific purposes as well.

Government boards may take the form of a formal board, but they can also take the form of appointed advisory committees, commissions, or task forces. Government boards are developed with a specific purpose in mind, like dealing with matters of transportation, health, historical landmarks, housing, education, or some other important matter that needs express attention.

Nominating committees of government boards sometimes have criteria that they have to follow when appointing board members, such as appointing a certain number of government employees from designated agencies, and others who are experts, advocates, or citizens. Some mandates require that some or all board positions be appointed by government officials. Members of government boards usually have term limits, which are staggered with the term limits of other board members. Government boards may meet monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, or as often as needed to complete their work.

Government boards connect government employees, government officials and citizens. Government boards don't typically write new laws or policies, but they can, and usually are quite influential. The work of government boards provides oversight of specific issues. The mandate that created the board, along with its formal description of board duties, sometimes requires the board to submit formal reports with their recommendations to a governmental body, at least annually.

Expectations of Government Board Directors

Positions on government boards may be a requirement as part of government employment. Non-governmental employee board members typically serve on a volunteer basis. They aren't paid for their service, but many government board directors qualify for reimbursement of their expenses for board duty. While some members of government boards serve of their own free will, they are held to the same standards as any other board member.

Government board directors are expected to attend all meetings and to participate in ad hoc or committee meetings. Board directors may also be requested to serve as an officer, such as president, vice president, secretary or treasurer, or to perform additional duties as part of the executive committee. Government boards often provide opportunities for ongoing training in board service via webinars, workshops, conferences, or mentoring by another board member.

Government officials rely on these boards to provide feedback on specific issues or proposals. Boards have the necessary time to conduct research and to make recommendations to educate government officials so they can make informed decisions when they vote for or against legislative bills.

Because they serve the public interest, most government meetings are subject to an open meetings act, which means meetings are open to the public. Government meetings need to reflect transparency and accountability.

Best Practices for Government Boards

Government board directors have many of the same responsibilities as any other board members. Thus, best practices for government boards mirror best practices for other types of boards. Board directors have legal and fiduciary responsibilities. These duties are especially important because board directors are the face and voice of the people, and the board's budget comes directly from taxpayers.

As with other types of boards, best practices for corporate governance recommend that the board has a written description of the board's functions, duties and responsibilities. The description may be developed by the board or by a governmental body.

Today's boards are encouraged to have strong independence and diversity among their board directors. This is especially challenging where board appointments come from government officials rather than from the nominating committee of the board. Another issue for government boards is that board directors who represent governmental agencies often outnumber directors from the citizen representatives.

Government board members who represent as advocates, citizens, or experts don't need to have experience on the board. These members are usually selected for their values, commitment to the issue, availability, competence and diversity. Members of the board who represent governmental agencies or other bodies should welcome non-government board members to the board and offer them mutual respect and openness to each other's ideas. Board members from the citizen sector should be willing to challenge the opinions of others. They need to remember that the very reason they were chosen for board service is that they have a different perspective from other board members.

Even though government boards don't always appoint their own board directors, they still usually have nominating or governance committees. The governance committee should have as many independent directors as possible because the main purpose of the governance committee is to adhere closely to the principles for good governance. The nominating or governance committee is responsible for evaluating the executive director's performance. The committee also develops succession plans for board members and the executive director. In addition, the governance committee organizes the board committees and assigns committee chairs.

It is also considered part of best practices for government boards to conduct regular executive sessions with and without the executive director present. Board members often have a greater comfort level in speaking openly and honestly when the executive director is not present. It may be appropriate for the board chair to give the executive director some basic information about what the executive committee discussed. Typically, the executive committee functions as a steering committee for the full board.

The composition of government boards is unlike that of corporate boards that focus heavily on finances. Government boards are in the business of citizen capital because they invest in the people that government agencies serve.


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