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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Michael R. Ford
May 20, 2016
Years ago, while working as a practitioner in Wisconsin, a legislator asked me about alternative governance structures for school districts. I responded with a laundry list of reforms other states had tried. I foolishly did not anticipate the follow-up question: Which structure works? It was a good question that spurred a local government research agenda aimed at linking the governance of public and nonprofit institutions to performance.
I have found that simply asking the question is not a productive approach. Why? Governance is so much more than organizational structure. Thus far, my research has led me to three general recommendations for those trying to turn governance into an actionable concept for improving organizational performance.
Recommendation One: Ask the questions, “how” and “when,” rather than “what.”
Everybody agrees government should be accountable to citizens, yet “accountability” means different things to different people. Frustrated with ambiguous calls for accountability in the education sector, I surveyed 308 school board members in Wisconsin, asking them to define accountability in the context of their core mission of maximizing student outcomes. Their responses to my open-ended question were all over the place. Some board members defined accountability through test scores, some spoke of keeping staff happy, some punted by saying it was the state’s job, while others said accountability is not in their purview.
I then tested to see if any one definition led to higher school district performance. None did. But when I went inside the black box to see if board members serving together defined accountability in the same manner, I found board member agreement on a definition (no matter what) did lead to better student outcomes.
I took my survey national and found similar findings in other states. Though this study is limited to the education sector, the findings nonetheless demonstrate how the group dynamic around an idea can be more important for public performance than the idea itself. Which leads to my second recommendation.
Recommendation Two: Accept and embrace that perceptions are reality.
I recently served on a board where one member felt like the group was continually dismissive of his ideas and generally out to get him. This was objectively not the case, but it did not matter. Progress ground to a halt as we spent meeting after unproductive meeting dealing with perceived slights rather than our governing task. The fact that the group was not actually working against one member did not matter, what inhibited our performance were perceptions and not reality.
Today, the academic side of public administration is placing increased focus on experiments that reveal empirical realities, but ignore the human element. Such an approach works for some problems. But as my anecdote hopefully demonstrated, risks dismissing the fundamentally human side of governance.
I attempted to better understand the importance of governance perceptions by asking 166 Minnesota nonprofit board members, 5,002 American school board members and 132 Wisconsin city council and village board members how they viewed conflict on their governing boards. In all three cases, perceived relationship conflict, i.e., conflict related to personalities and not the governing task, and entrenched conflict, i.e., the unwillingness of a board member to identify with the board as a whole as opposed to a coalition within the board, negatively impacted organizational performance. The findings are particularly interesting to me because perceived conflict can be addressed through board development exercises and the findings hold across different contexts. Which leads to my third recommendation.
Recommendation Three: Look across organizational contexts.
My classrooms, like those in which readers of this column teach or learn(ed), is populated by a diverse group of students working in the public and nonprofit sectors. If governance is a generalizable concept, and if it is to be made actionable to the diverse practitioners I teach, it is essential to determine the extent to which research conclusions apply. For example, I found in the case of Minnesota nonprofit charter school boards that an ideal allocation of board-executive responsibilities exists. However, an ideal allocation does not exist for traditional Minnesota school boards. Hence, working across contexts demonstrated the limited applicability of my initial finding. In contrast, the previously shared discussion of the link between conflict and performance appears to be a generalizable conclusion that can be broadly applied.
In conclusion, governance can and should be a tool for improving public and nonprofit performance. The freedom and treasure all citizens cede to be part of a governed society requires the legitimizing functions served by both representation and results. Hence, understanding how the human oversight of public and nonprofit organizations impacts performance is, at least in this researcher’s mind, crucial for the future success of our field and our society.
Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published numerous academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.