The Role of Public Sector Boards

Thomas SchillemansThomas Schillemans

For many organisations providing important public services, such as education, health care or community services, non-governing boards serve as the primary accountability mechanisms for daily management. The ‘boardisation of the public sector’, as Wilks described this, has evolved considerably. In my country of residence the Netherlands, for instance, the guesstimation is that we have almost 50,000 positions on those boards, six times as many as in democratically elected local councils. A large proportion of those positions have been created in the recent past. This would suggest that the board model is a major success.

From a research perspective, however, this conclusion would be impossible to sustain. Scholars have spoken of the “rubber stamp model” of boards and have stressed that relations are generally marked by “managerial dominance”. Available numbers and figures are often unflattering. A study on the voting behavior in boards for instance underlined the rubber stamp-cliché, finding that boards go against managers in fewer than 1 percent of the cases. Stories from the boardroom suggest that meetings are primarily used to update boards on developments and that meetings “tend to consist of 15 to 20 items without apparent priorities”. Another study finds that approximately a fifth of all board members can be characterized as “active” participants in meeting while the other 80% is “reserved” (if not occasionally dormant). A third of the studied boards did not have a single ”active” member. In addition, many studies suggest that boards prioritize their roles as strategic advisors and linking pins to external constituencies above their roles as critical accountability forums and scrutinizers.

None of these findings are new. Their joint impact though should have implications for our research on boards. In a recent research provocation in Policy & Politics we brought the available studies on public sector boards together and discussed the research agenda emanating from the often disappointing findings. Three major questions stand out. On a micro-level we know that many boards fail to live up to expectations yet also that some boards and some board members are found to be active, critical, and contributive of public value. How can we understand that some boards fare better than others? What conditions (group dynamics, transparency?) foster active and effective behaviours in boards? On a meso-level it would make sense for researchers to zoom out. Many studies have an exclusive focus on boards but end up concluding that the wider strategic environment has a major impact on what boards do. We would be well-advised to take this finding seriously and to see boards as parts of a broader accountability regime surrounding public organisations and to assess the quality and performance of the regime rather than the board. This also leads to a final set of questions: how can we understand boardisation? Is it a general attempt at improving governance and accountability in the public sector, an uncritical example of copy-pasting from private sector models or perhaps a Machiavellian endeavor to shift blame away from politicians?

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Schillemans, Thomas; Bovens, Mark (2018) ‘Governance, accountability and the role of public sector boards‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: doi.org/10.1332/030557318X15296526490810

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