I read a lot of complaints and criticisms about John Carver’s Policy Governance model but let’s give Carver a break and look at all the great things his model has contributed to board governance. There are many reasons most boards still use his underlying principles 40 years after they were introduced.
First, it is logical. Carver developed his Policy Governance model in the 1970’s and at the time it was considered revolutionary for board governance. It liberated boards from dealing with operational issues and gave them a template from which to govern at the appropriate level while fulfilling their fiduciary obligations. The Board Policy Manuals I create use Carver’s model as one of my guides because it makes good, basic business sense.
Second, it works. High functioning boards work well because of the concepts that were developed by Carver. If boards have the right level of governance defined in their policies, it frees up both the board and the CEO to function as they were intended and to perform at well-defined high standards.
Third, board contact with the organization beyond the CEO is a good thing. There is a misconception that Carver’s model prevents the board from having any contact with the staff. The model is strict about the type of contact but that is because it was a reaction to board members micromanaging and getting into the organization at inappropriate levels. After much trial and error, there are now many healthy ways for boards to be more involved with staff, donors and other constituents so they can better understand the organization, the context and the culture. This leads to better board discussions and ultimately better board decisions.
Fourth, it can be modified. Carver states that the model can’t be changed and still work as it was intended but experience has shown that it can and that it works even better with modifications. Ideas such as “generative discussions” did not exist in Carver’s time and would have been an anathema to him but they have now been proven to work for many boards and they work well for boards that have the Carver model as a foundation. From a legal perspective modifications are also needed for the model to be compliant with legislation in Canada. The Policy Governance model was considered innovative when it was introduced and innovation is what will keep it relevant for years to come.
Carver’s Policy Governance Model may not be perfect but it is still one of the best board governance concepts of the last 40 years.