Public Governance

June 16, 2009

When I was a teenager, I witnessed the hijacking of a hospital.

For most of my life my mother lived peacefully and well cared for in a residential facility administered by the hospital next door. Her life was unsettled one year by a rush of dramatic changes in policy that also affected the costs of her care. All the changes came about because of a 100% change in the membership of the board of directors of the non-profit society that governed her residence – a board elected at that year’s annual general meeting (AGM).

AGMs tend to be mundane procedural affairs until a sitting board makes (or doesn’t make) a decision to the liking of a highly emotional and charged constituency of its members. Back when my mother was alive and in residence, the board of directors of the hospital administering my mother’s institution allowed staff to perform abortions.

No one noticed the slow but steady increase in the sale of memberships to the hospital society during the year. But at that year’s AGM, suddenly there were 250 members present when there were usually only 25, and what everyone expected to be another tedious AGM turned into a coup.

All societies must have an election of directors every year at their AGM. When it came time for the election of the board at the hospital that year, every person standing for election (recommended by the existing board’s nominating committee) lost to members nominated from the floor, every one of whom was anti-abortion.

This was an entirely legal activity that was viewed as an unfavourable method of bringing about change by some members of the community. The newly elected board not only changed abortion policies, but many other policies as well. There was too much change, too quickly and the whole community suffered.

When citizens reacted in shock to the take over of the hospital board, a long-standing history of the conflict came to light as did a personality conflict between a powerful member of the hospital’s board of directors and the spokesperson of the community’s anti-abortion delegation. Their conflict prevented a harmonious resolution of the issue separating them; the “hostile take over” happened instead. The board had made a mistake in its handling of hospital policies, public opinion and its AGM.

My father and I saw the “powerful board member” in action. When someone who is very bright is the president of a society’s board of directors and is also non-consultative, the society board takes on that person‚’ personality and this can lead to trouble.

A commandment of public stewardship is that every single voice should be heard but no one voice should be followed. All advice offered is for consideration; none can be offered with an expectation of unquestioned acceptance. So when a person assumes the voice of a society and lends their personality to the collective, the society is not working and eventually something goes wrong. Public governing is a skill every public board member must learn.

Someone – either their soul or their reputation – often gets hurt when ‘seismic’ adjustments are made to built-up public tension, and this lesson was recently learned at the Seymour Art Gallery in Deep Cove in North Vancouver when the long-serving director of the gallery was suddenly sacked. Her dismissal brought tension to a head and the community voted out the board of directors and replaced it with a new board that immediately reinstated the fired director. Several people asked me to comment about this event of which I was aware, but it had never struck me as significant.
My entire arts career has had me working with boards of directors – as the senior staff person working for a board, as a volunteer board member, as a board president or simply as a voting member of several societies. Consequently, I sometimes forget that many people have no experience with public governance.

None of the events I describe above are extraordinary to me. They are all part of the yin and yang of the management of the public trust but responsible, open-minded leadership that facilitates communication with its community can ensure that societies enjoy a more stable administrative path.

It is only when a board loses touch with its constituent community that trouble occurs. If you can’t solve a problem; you have to manage it well. And steady stewardship ensures that nobody will get hurt. In the case of Seymour Art Gellery, a long-serving director got hurt as so did the interim director who was an innocent victim of the upheaval. Still, it is often how things go. There is no school for board members.

In the long run, the system works. As the head of staff or as president of a board, I sometimes found it to be a painful process to facilitate widespread input on key decisions from all constituencies involved, but worthwhile. I found that doing so would lead to a greater percentage of acceptance of a controversial decision if I went into the process with a willingness to listen sincerely and to remain open-minded to potential compromise.

The enemy is ego – maybe yours, maybe someone else’s. As board members we are vital and we are there to speak up, but we are also there to represent our community. We have to think about whom we represent and not speak only from our own experience and in our own voice.

One way, is for board members to ensure that a member with a domineering or arrogant attitude is not the president or voice of the collective. The best president is one who understands governance rules and public procedural order; it is not the ideal role for the loudest voice, dominant personality or largest donor. Presidents should ensure that everyone is heard – not that everyone hears him or her.

Chris Tyrell