For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
October 30, 2002 - Board Accountability
Public employees, as I described last week, are accountable through annual evaluations, and the general oversight of their supervisors.
Elected officials are accountable to the voters. If they prove to be unresponsive, or incompetent, they get voted out of office.
But what about appointed officials? For many members of public boards, there are few performance guidelines, and virtually no way to hold members -- or the body as a whole -- up to those guidelines even if they did exist.
The Trustees of the Douglas Public Library District decided to tackle this issue head on. On Sept. 21, 2002, they got together with the Trustees of the Arapahoe Library District for a joint retreat. Here was the agenda:
* Review and agree upon trustee job descriptions for officers (President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer) and general trustee responsibilities.
* Assess self and board performance over the past year.
* Discuss jointly what we do well (and should be maintained), and what needs improvement.
* Select 3-5 goals for the coming year.
The job descriptions came from various Library Trustee training workbooks around the country. We augmented them with a host of data from not-for-profit board websites. It turns out (surprise!) that most board position requirements are remarkably similar.
For instance, consider this responsibility of the board president: "Plans and presides over board meetings. The president is responsible for advance, written agenda; plans and conducts meetings to assure productive sessions which steadily move the board toward its internal goals and objectives as well as the library goals and objectives. The president's knowledge of, and commitment to, parliamentary procedures, plus an understanding of group dynamics, can make the difference between a meeting which keeps the discussion focused on the major action issues to be considered, or a rambling, semi-social session."
I submit that this applies to any board president.
The self-assessment was private. Trustees were given time to fill out a one page form, then were permitted to hang onto it. We did the form ourselves, and I intend to post it on our website for others to use.
Next, they filled out another form we designed, this time to assess the performance of their Board. This made some statements that, again, apply to all Boards, for instance: The board pays more attention to ends than to means, i.e. To what will be done not to how it will be done. Trustees then rated those statements as to yes, no, NA or don't need, or Need to do.
The joint discussion that followed was fascinating. There were some things that the Arapahoe Board did that my Board wanted to adopt. Some of the things we did, they found interesting. Each of us got to see the ways that our library governance was similar, and the ways it differed.
Then we broke into two small groups and worked up our list of goals for the year. Here are two of ours: to conduct a Board evaluation annually, and to require at least one continuing education event per Board member per year.
I've learned through this process what I suspected all along. Accountability can be imposed from the outside, or from the inside. It works best if it starts within the organization, by people who have thought about what their jobs are, and trust each other to give honest feedback.
I'm very impressed with the Trustees of both libraries. And I wouldn't be surprised to find out that what we have begun here spreads to other library boards. That would be a good thing.