Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are trustees politicians??

I've been in conferences for trustees where I've heard the speaker say: "You are politicians. Don't forget that." I've been in other conferences where I've heard: "Trustees are not politicians. You are a corporate board. Don't forget that."

I've been told to "act like government" and then told not to... sometimes within the same day.

What do you think?

Are trustees elected officials, like any other, with the same responsibilities to their constituents or are they a special breed, neither fish nor fowl, bound by separate rules of "one board, one voice"? Are they expected to work the room, smile for the cameras, make connections and kiss babies, like other politicians...or not? Should individual trustees talk to the media or should the Board Chair be the sole spokesperson for the Board?

Individual trustees have no authority, no power, above what any other citizen has. All decisions are made by the Board, through majority vote and any power we have is derived solely from these board decisions. But you could say the same of individual MLAs or councillors... they can't wave a magic wand and make things change. They are also reliant upon a majority vote for change to occur.

I am curious to understand what your expectations are of trustees. Do you expect to know their position in debates? To see their vote reflect their constituents' views? Do you expect trustees to be visible in the media? Does it matter? Or does the work of the Board as a whole hold more value to you? Do you only care about the outcomes, the achievements of the Board and decisions of the Board? Do you view individual trustees in the media as grand-standers or self-promoters? Are you content to have accountability as a "once-every-three-years-see-you-at-the-polls" phenomenon? Or do you expect more on-going accountability?

With the Minister of Education's Inspiring Education consultations coming up, these may be some of the questions that we will wrestle with. Do trustees and boards need a 21st Century makeover? If so, what would that "hairdo" look like? Send me an email and let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue – please remember as you read this that I am one of your biggest supporters! I trust that you are ensuring some work/life balance to maintain your spiritual sanity as you undertake the challenges of being a trustee.

If you’re not a politician, why did I elect you?
If you’re looking for a cozy place to hide with a salary for 3 years,
Second Cup is hiring!

I trust you are asking this question to stir up conversation, which is one of the functions of a politician and is not normally expected of a corporate bureaucrat.

I believe your first responsibility is to represent the public who elected you.

Now the question is what kind of politician do you want to be?
Are you someone open to new ideas and steering change through muddy waters or someone with a hidden agenda to maintain the status quo?

Do you want to work on a consensus basis with other trustees who are likewise representing the best interests of their constituents or do you want to be whipped into silent fearful submission by a controlling leader like our current Prime Minister?

Having worked in communications for many years at the corporate level and in the Federal Government in Ottawa for very controversial programs, I believe it is essential that there is a consistent message delivered that reflects the decisions/programs being delivered by an organization. Anyone smart enough to be elected as a trustee which involves delivering a coherent campaign message is certainly smart enough to deliver a public relations message on behalf of the Board. If you are better at doing that because of your particular personality or training or strengths then you are contributing to raising the bar for all the other trustees and serving the Board as a corporate entity. The public deserves the best representatives we can find to direct the public education policy of our society’s youth. Other trustees bring other strengths to their role and putting all of that together hopefully creates a challenging thoughtful Board of Trustees serving the public interest.

I want to see public debate at the public Trustee meetings. What I have seen repeatedly, and as recently as the last meeting on April 14, is a public display of niceness. I see you personally itching to move the discussion forward, to open things up on the one hand, and, on the other hand, that the structure of the meeting defeats the goal of transparency and frank discussion. The language of “receiving documents for information” is a front for the behind the scenes negotiating that I believe is going on. While I’m not supporting the kind of name-calling and political one-up-man/womanship that goes on in the House of Commons, I am expecting to see an open forum of intelligent discussion by all the elected School Board Trustees on serious issues. I am also expecting the Board to encourage public input into these “public meetings” and your recommendation to allow the public to more easily speak at meetings is commendable. If you treat the public respectfully, the public will do the same for you, is my belief.

By the very nature of being an elected trustee, you are a self-promoter. Once elected, your job is to promote the organization to which you were elected and to continue to make yourself publicly available to the constituency you legally represent. The problem is not that you are skilled at this. The problem is that others are not equally so and that they are not willing to climb outside their own confining boxes to grow as individuals in this area.

I fully realize that the issues you’re dealing with are not black and white. I trust you to make the best decision on my behalf. That’s why I elected you. I also expect regular public accountability for my vote. Furthermore I trust you to make some difficult forward-thinking decisions that reflect the inspiration that led you to be elected as a POLITICIAN in the first place.

Your constituent