Board Governance: Many Perspectives, One Interest

by Bruce G. Matthews, Deputy Registrar, Ontario College of Trades

 

In my 17 years of professional and occupational regulatory experience, including 11 years involved with CLEAR, I’ve worked with numerous boards and exchanged views with senior staff at countless regulatory organizations. I’ve always been struck by the commonality of experience on a broad range of issues. Board governance, board composition and the primacy of the public interest are just a few of those issues. 


The composition of professional and occupational regulatory boards can vary greatly within a given jurisdiction, and it does vary greatly across jurisdictions, nationally and internationally. Some boards are filled with appointed members, some have only elected members, and many include a combination of the two. In any case, it is more than likely that specific members are selected, or elected, to fill a specific requirement—e.g., they come from a specific geographic region, they come from some pre-defined subset of the practitioner base, or they possess some specific qualification or credential required by statute.


It is both reasonable and appropriate for governing legislation to enumerate such requirements for the composition of a board. Having a diversity of perspectives—driven by geography or other factors—makes for a more balanced, inclusive and effective board. The challenge faced by regulators, however, is that the individual board members who are chosen or elected based on these subdivisions often feel that they “represent” that group. This is especially true of board members who are elected—there is a natural tendency to believe that they have a constituency to represent when serving on the board. This is patently untrue, but it can be a significant challenge to communicate and educate such board members about their core roles and responsibilities.


At the heart of the challenge is understanding the difference between interests and perspectives, or in other words the difference between representing a group versus employing personal knowledge and experience based on membership within a group. A professional or occupational regulatory board has one interest only—the public interest. It is sometimes expressed more specifically as the public welfare or public safety, but at its essence is the notion that the regulator exists so that there may be a well-ordered society in which public interest risks are mitigated and managed. This is the foundation of risk-based regulation.


A regulatory body is not a club, and the interests of the practitioners do not matter. These are probably the biggest hurdles for board members who are practitioners, and/or have been elected by practitioners, to overcome. It can be very hard for them to understand that there is no constituency to be represented at the board table. It can seem unnatural for elected board members to not be a voice for those who elected them. What needs to be explained and illustrated, initially during an onboarding or orientation process and frequently reinforced thereafter, is that board members are there to represent the public interest—period. Fairness to practitioners and to others who engage the regulator is essential, and tenets of accountability and transparency must be followed, but the only interest is the public interest.


Board members must be made to realize that they are there to provide their particular perspective, whether it is borne of geography or some other subdivision of the practitioner population, or based on some other qualification or credential. A board of like-minded individuals with identical backgrounds cannot function well—it cannot foresee challenges and cannot respond to them in a fulsome way. Such a board is like a toolbox filled only with hammers. The unique perspective of a diverse range of individual board members, based on their life experiences, both related to the practice of the profession and otherwise, enriches the board as a whole and brings benefits where the total is greater than the sum of the parts.


Getting a board, and its individual members, to accept and adopt the philosophy of “many perspectives, one interest” isn’t easy. Primary responsibility should fall on the board chair, and perhaps extend to the executive committee. But what does a regulator do when the board chair doesn’t “get it”, and takes on the persona of a representative of a constituency and promotes other interests? This is when the CEO or Executive Director of the regulatory organization must step in and set the record straight.


The orientation and training of board members is an ongoing effort. In most jurisdictions, board members are volunteers and/or are only engaged in regulation on a limited, part-time basis. They do not live and breathe regulation as staff do. The best chance for success is when the seed of “many perspectives, one interest” is planted early, and frequently revisited. This message should not be delivered only after individuals are appointed or elected to the board, but rather communicated to individuals who are considering appointment or running for election. It is in this way that expectations can be managed—both early and comprehensively, and newly appointed or elected board members won’t have to deal with whiplash associated with their actual roles and responsibilities.


Successful regulatory boards reflect and embrace a diversity of perspectives, and they acknowledge that the public interest is the only interest that must impact their decision making.

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