Saturday, February 7, 2009

Critique of Policy Governance

"Policy Governance" is a system of governing an organization that purports to allow Boards to operate more effectively, as they concentrate on the “ends” and direct the management to be responsible for the “means.” The Oneota Co-op’s governance is adapted from this model. Some suggest that our coop's strict adherence to this model may need reexamination, and may be part of the reason for the issues we are facing today.

Following is some critique of the Carver Policy Governance ® model, from the Institute on Governance

“However, the policy governance model has significant problems. Many organizations have tried to adopt it, and have had great difficulty making it work. Some say they are using the Carver model, but even a cursory review of their practices reveals that what they are actually doing is far removed from Carver principles.

Many board members and executive directors or CEOs interviewed in the research that informed the development of this web site said they found the policy governance model to be too rigid. Others indicated that they tried to adopt it but had to modify it to make it work — and when this model is modified to any degree it is no longer the Carver model.

The non-profit sector encompasses a broad spectrum of organizations at different stages in their organizational life. These organizations have different conceptions of what a board's functions need to be and also differing principles underlying the board's role.

Yet, Carver insists that the model works best when adopted in its entirety and that its failure can only be attributed to incomplete or improper implementation.

Carver’s “one best way” focuses on process and the development of a well-designed system but makes little allowances for human nature. Yet, in all organizations, leadership is essential if well-designed systems are to be made dynamic.

Carver makes high demands of the people in the system. Critics have pointed out that the model needs ideal board members to function properly, ones that truly know the organization and possess exceptional understanding of the organization's strengths and weaknesses. Board members of this calibre might be difficult to find. The time demands on board members are also high, requiring them to be briefed on internal matters and to connect with external stakeholders. Carver makes the assumption that weak members will be neutralized or got rid of and strong members will be found and retained.

Great demands are made on management, who require the necessary skills to implement the ends set by the board. Weaknesses and inadequacies on either side can not be compensated for through mutual-help and team-like activities between staff and board, since it is thought that this would result in a confusion of roles.

The Carver model requires a separation of board work and staff work, with the CEO as the official link between the two. The benefit of this approach is that roles and responsibilities are clear, as is accountability. However, the danger is that the board and staff feel disconnected from each other. With the separation of roles, board members lose their understanding of programs because of a lack of program details. Staff may be resentful or dismissive of board decisions when they perceive the board as remote and without understanding of implementation realities. The staff may also feel disempowered to contribute to the direction of the organization.

Carver neatly separates ends and means. There is extensive literature on this topic, and the conclusion of much of this literature is that this apparently simple separation cannot be maintained in practice (For example: is democracy an end or a means?). Critics also point out that insights about ends and broad strategies are to be found in all parts of an organization. To suggest that staff should be sealed off from reflection about strategy and organizational ends (because this is the board's preserve) is impractical and potentially damaging to both the organization and morale.

Four empirical studies have been published which examine, either exclusively or in part, the Policy Governance model. In a review of these studies, Alan Hough and colleagues from the Queensland University of Technology said, “On the current evidence it cannot be shown to be more effective than other approaches to board improvement. What seems to be important is that boards make some attempt to improve their performance.” (Corporate Governance Quarterly, Summer 2005 edition)”


  1. A couple of times in this article you state the Carver model suggests a separation of responsibility between the board, focused on 'ends', and management, focused on 'means'.

    This interpretation is not supported by a close reading of the Carver model.

    In fact, Carver states:
    "because the board is accountable for everything, it is accountable for means as well. Accordingly, it must exercise control over both ends and means, so having the ends/means distinction does not in itself relieve boards from any responsibility" (

    Under the Carver model (and imho) even though the board can and should delegate various roles to the CEO, the board is still responsible to the owners to ensure those roles have been performed appropriately, and that means the board still has to understand the business at a quite detailed level.

    A really good board member will find ways to gather that knowledge outside the actual board meeting itself, so they are not wasting everyone else's time in the meeting by asking a succession of questions about issues they could (and arguably should) already understand.

    One way to achieve this is through a structure of sub-committees. Another is for individual board members to simply do their homework.

  2. I enjoyed this post about Carver's governance model. With modern technology the members of the organization can decide upon the ends of the organization, leaving to the board and management with the responsibility to implement what the democracy of the members decides upon. This model is discussed at