Public-facing boards face constant scrutiny. While private-sector counterparts might gain visibility only when they release quarterly reports, boards in the public eye open their meetings to critics, journalists and watchdogs who eagerly hold them accountable. Sound governance practices make this incessant visibility an opportunity to win public trust. Seven best practices tell constituents: “We take care of business, we have nothing to hide and we welcome public participation.”
Best Practice #1: Take Security Seriously
A public-facing website puts a board’s work where all can see it. Some states even require laggard public organizations to create websites to comply with open-meeting and open-records laws. It’s a good move for transparency, but it also puts the entire organization within reach of hackers and phishers who want to steal sensitive information, corrupt data or disrupt operations – often charging a ransom to restore order. Such an attack by the international ransomware outfit SamSam recently cost the city of Atlanta over $2 million. Responsible stewardship requires taking six steps to protect data:
Best Practice #2: Try Unconventional Communications
An online presence facilitates a cornucopia of public communication strategies. The International Association for Public Participation recommends such novel experiments as walkshops, charrettes and meetings in a box. When Vancouver launched a city-wide conversation on greening efforts by teaching in the “PechaKucha” style, it got the highest attendance of any civic engagement event in its history, drawing in many demographic groups traditionally uninterested in city projects.
Best Practice #3: Maximize Transparency
It’s one thing to be told: “Information is available upon request.” It’s quite another to see quickly accessible records when you weren’t even looking for them. Putting materials online with advanced software lets you freely offer them to every constituent:
Best Practice #4: Manage Meetings Responsibly
Meetings that are open to the public welcome suspicious, volatile and domineering personalities. When they derail a meeting with their own agendas, it tells the rest of the attendees: “I don’t respect your time” and “I don’t know how to get business accomplished.” To plan for an efficient, focused meeting, create structures. Using Robert’s Rules of Order creates the expectation that one person at a time “has the floor” and that the chair can intervene at any time. Instituting protocols for speakers to register in advance of the meeting on one topic for a specified amount of time also makes it clear that nobody gets to hijack the meeting.
Best Practice #5: Monitor Progress
To publicize all the work that is getting done to advance goals, post a dashboard on the public-facing website of the board portal. It can show the exact degree to which the board is approaching the completion of its objectives. A sophisticated board portal can convert time logs into measured steps taken in pursuit of a goal, even mapping the results onto a speedometer or other graphical scoreboard.
Best Practice #6: Balance Confidentiality With Openness
In your eagerness to make agendas, minutes, readings and historical records exceedingly easy to find, are you jeopardizing the confidentiality of highly sensitive documents that are meant for the board only? If you leave distribution of board materials to techniques prone to human error, you are doing just that. Say you cut and paste lists of email recipients, or you trust a tired assistant’s memory of the names on a list. One mistake could violate confidentiality laws.
The solution is a board portal with role-based authorizations. Different audiences are filed according to their role in the organization (e.g., “board” or “public”). When you post a highly sensitive document for board members to read, you can specify that it appear only when they log onto the portal; when others log on, they will see a scrubbed version of the same document – or no document at all.
Best Practice #7: Cater to Constituents With Special Needs
Traditionally, anyone interested in attending a meeting must stroll by a poster on a building to get the date and location of the meeting and then appear in person to voice their views. This time-honored custom inadvertently excludes nonambulatory citizens, the disfigured and anyone with agoraphobia. Online feedback mechanisms, meeting notices accessible from home and posted meeting video make meetings fully inclusive for the first time.
An online presence is not enough; your public-facing website should comply fully with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires accommodations for a vast array of manual, sensory and cognitive deficits. Unwitting non-compliance is the norm, as the regulations call for extensive adaptations for handicaps beyond deafness and blindness. In 2017, federal investigations of negligent entities surged (Ryan). Diligent portals lead the industry in this respect. Their executives work closely with the Office of Civil Rights as it creates each successive generation of compliance requirements.
Follow these best practices, and you’ll see citizen engagement shoot through the roof. These simple governance protocols instill trust, welcome every constituent and invite communication. Your board will appear not only supremely competent, but deeply committed to the people it serves.
MSRC, “Communication and Citizen Participation Techniques.”
NSBA, 2017 School Board Survey.
Ryan, Susan, “2017 Website Accessibility Lawsuit Recap: A Tough Year for Businesses,” at www.adatitleiii.com. January 2, 2018.