Nine Keys to Effective Board and Commission Management

September 20, 2021

By Rory Galter and Dan Genz, Assistant City Auditors, City of Dallas, Texas.

When masterful author, Robert Caro, wrote about boards commissions and public authorities in his acclaimed book, The Power Broker, he described them as something like a fourth branch of government.

His point can be clearly seen in many places. In Dallas, over time, they have grown to be an integral part of local government operations. The city has about 500 people serving on 52 boards charged with providing direction and recommendations on various city operations such as police oversight, parks and recreation, homelessness, animal services, arts, housing, and economic development. Boards and commissions fill several roles in local government, from running organizations to performing quasi-judicial tasks to providing an advisory component. As Dallas’ budget notes, “Civic participation is a cornerstone of representative democracy and boards, and commissions offer residents an opportunity to actively participate in local government.”

Our recent audit established a number of keys to effective operations in boards commissions and authorities. Though they were designed for our own purposes due to requirements in Dallas, they can apply to any other large municipality. Following are nine keys for boards to operate effectively:

  1. Establish responsibility for ensuring compliance with requirements.
    Organizations may set many requirements for boards to follow. The possibility exists for fragmentation of the responsibility for ensuring compliance with requirements across multiple departments or functions. Establishing a focal point for ensuring requirement compliance across all boards provides clear accountability.
  2. Monitor operating costs.
    While board members typically volunteer their time, a good deal of organizational and monetary support goes into boards operating effectively, including recruiting and vetting new board members; setting meeting schedules and agendas; recording meeting minutes; tracking attendance; preparing annual activity reports; maintaining websites and arranging for legal guidance about conducting meetings. Monitoring these costs helps an organization understand the expenses for operations, which is particularly critical information when considering approving new boards or eliminating current boards.
  3. Establish roles and responsibilities for board members.
    Having clearly defined roles and responsibilities provides strong guidance for a board’s activities and helps reduce member dissatisfaction with serving that can accrue when the board is not meeting the member’s expectations or achieving the member’s goals and initiatives. A 2019 Kansas City audit identifies expectations for board and commission governance in an appendix, including the adoption of bylaws.
  4. Meet expectations for racial and ethnic diversity.
    The City’s Charter requires the racial and ethnic make-up of boards to be representative of the City population, as nearly as is practicable. Given the nation’s current emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity, organizations should review the racial and ethnic diversity make-up of their boards, to achieve a more representative government. A 2019 Sacramento audit focused on the equity, diversity, and inclusion of its boards.
  5. Fill member vacancies on a timely basis.
    High vacancy rates or poor attendance limit the effectiveness of boards. Board vacancies and attendance should be regularly reviewed. Many boards have special qualifications for service, such as needing professional representation from an engineer, veterinarian, firefighter, or other requirements. If the requirements make it difficult to fill vacant seats, it may be good to revisit some of the special qualifications to ensure they still apply.
  6. Report publicly on operations.
    Each board should complete an annual report on its activities. Such reports provide valuable knowledge and transparency about the board's activities and priorities to interested parties. The report should include the mission, achievements, recommendations made, and goals of the board.
  7. Conduct meetings publicly in compliance with any open meetings requirements.
    Boards offer residents an opportunity to actively participate in local government, either by serving as a board member or providing public comment on issues addressed by the board. Ensuring the transparency of meetings and maintaining public trust, organizations must focus on posting meeting schedules and agendas on the board’s website on a regular basis and conducting meetings openly. The latter goal can be accomplished in a number of ways, including using live streaming and archived videos, limiting executive sessions that are not held in public view and making meeting minutes available to the public on a regular basis.
  8. Monitor compliance with any financial disclosure and conflict of interest requirements.
    Board members should be required to: (1) annually update their financial disclosures and, (2) publicly report any members who do not meet this requirement. Board members should recuse themselves from any board matters that are a conflict of interest both in appearance and substance. The organization should define potential conflict of interests and have each board member sign a statement annually acknowledging the conflict of interest requirements. Members who recuse themselves should be recorded in the meeting minutes.
  9. Maintain confidentiality of information.
    Boards may have access to information that is protected or confidential. Clear requirements for maintaining confidentiality, documentation of which information is confidential, and up-to-date training on the requirements and related penalties may help reduce the risk of problems relating to privacy.

This short video highlights the results of our audit.