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Moving Beyond Civility

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
March 17, 2022

While watching the State of the Union Address, I was struck, but not really surprised, that the president’s remarks were interrupted by some shouting from a Congressional member or two sitting in the gallery. The outburst spurred bi-partisan boos, presumably because the disruption was inconsistent with the formality of the occasion. To put it another way, people on both sides of the political aisle found the display inappropriate.

In my position as a local elected official, I take a civility pledge, I assume, to discourage me from acting boorishly in public. Incivility can take many forms, like disrespectful body language, interrupting, dressing someone down in public or just plain being a jerk to others. But why do we care? I think the popular belief is that those advocating civility find conflict personally distasteful. Or perhaps, people find uncivil behavior reflects poorly on the governing body as a whole. I have also seen people confuse calls for civility as political weakness, i.e., you are accusing someone of acting uncivil because you do not like their politics, and/or are unable to fight for your side.

All of this is to say that calls for civility can come off as superficial appeals akin to asking why we cannot all just get along. But civility can, and should be, a core governing concept that leads to improved governing board performance. A large body of academic research in Public Administration (PA) shows how the small group dynamics of governing boards can lead to better organizational outcomes. A board that is mired in relationship conflict, for example, is unable to consider, much less make decisions, that represent the views of diverse stakeholders. Conversely, governing boards that are able to interact in ways that enforce trust and open communication are more productive, and ultimately more impactful in meeting their goals.

In summary, the way in which governing board members interact with one another impacts the quality of their decision-making, which eventually connects with organizational operations and outcomes. This is true for city councils, school boards, nonprofit boards and small governing groups in general. Given that certain types of conflict lead to poor governance, there is a need to understand the root causes of conflict on a governing board. Again, there is substantial PA research exploring the root causes of conflict. Conflict can be a function of the difficulty of the governing task. For example, school boards with high percentages of historically disadvantaged students generally exhibit more conflict. Related, urbanity often leads to more diversity of opinion in the general public, and more conflict in a governing environment. Governing board conflict can also stem from the quality of the relationship between a board and a municipal executive, or the lack of up-to-date planning documents guiding board processes.

But board conflict is complicated. Certain types of conflict are needed. Governing boards serve as a bridge between the residents of a community and their government, hence the disagreements that exist in a community can and should exist in a democratic governing body. By definition a board that has no conflict is not representative of a diverse public. So, what does productive conflict look like? It is conflict that leads to a clear decision, that leads to a policy action that is accepted as legitimate by all members of a governing board, and that does not reemerge through predictable governing coalitions. In other words, a high functioning board can debate an issue, make a decision and move on without creating ongoing rifts in the group.

Returning to the idea of civility, its real power is creating a culture conducive to impactful governance. A governing board that is able to operate in a civil manner is capable of moving to the next step of productive conflict. Civility alone is no guarantee of improved governance. We can all act civilly to one another and still not accomplish necessary tasks. In fact, civility can degrade into a culture of risk aversion where board members censor themselves from sharing legitimate opinions for fear of being perceived as uncivil. But, a board that is incapable of acting in a civil manner is all but guaranteed to fail.

Moving from civility to productive governance requires deliberate attention. Self-assessments of personality styles, formal education on board procedures and regular governing board trainings can all help translate civility into good governance practices. While it is true that uncivil behavior is often embarrassing and reflects poorly on a governing body, it is actually much more damaging. It prevents the productive conflict that yields results.

Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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