What can the public sector learn from recent governance failures?
I’ve been Board Watching again.
I’ve been noticing when I observe some public sector Boards in action how little real conversation actually takes place. I wonder is this because the Board meetings are taking place in public? I’m not sure. My own experience on public sector Boards suggests that you very quickly get comfortable having debates and conversations in front of a public audience.
The Scottish Government is very keen to encourage transparency as part of the move towards more open government. But actually very few members of the public go along to these Board meetings.
“Conversation in the Boardroom is the ‘magic dust’ that underpins Board effectiveness”
Good Governance Forum, 2015
I believe that the lack of real conversation has more to do with the way many public Board meetings are structured.the lack of real conversation has more to do with the way many public Board meetings are structured On some Boards, Board members only speak when invited to (or given permission) by the Chair. As a result, conversation becomes one-to-one between a Board member and the Chair, not between all members of the Board. Executive Directors give formal statements often repeating the content of the Board papers (which the Board members have hopefully read). There is little opportunity for a real conversation involving multiple participants.
Why are we clinging on to this old, overly formal, way of doing things when there are better options?I have seen very little real inquiry or challenge It doesn’t leave me feeling reassured that our public sector Boards are holding the organisations they serve to account. I have seen very little real inquiry or challenge. Questions on the whole seemed quite superficial. Replies are accepted at face value – no drilling down to understand or challenge assumptions. Opposition is often dealt with by dropping the subject or agreeing to resume the debate at a later, unspecified, date.
If we think about it in terms of Bill Isaacs’ ‘Stages of Conversation’ model (below), most of the conversation is at the level of serial monologues. There is hardly any debate and very little ‘real’ discussion.
Reports of some of the biggest failures of governance in recent years point to poor Boardroom conversations as a key factor. The minimum level we should be aiming for is the level of ‘skillful conversation’. Maybe it is time to rethink how public sector Board meetings are conducted?
If you would like to find out more about the Board Watch project and how you can improve the quality of your Boardroom Conversations, then drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org