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Effective Community Governance: An Overview

“Community governance” refers to the processes for making all the decisions and plans that affect life in the community, whether made by public or private organizations or by citizens. For community governance to be effective, it must be about more than process, it also must be about getting things done in the community. And what gets done must make a difference. So, it is crucial to measure results. But what should be done, and what results should be measured? There is no standard answer. The most important results vary from one community to another, and different people within a community have different perceptions about what the community should try to improve and how success should be measured. So, it is vital to engage citizens in deciding what to do and to engage them in deciding what results to measure or what performance goals or targets to measure against. Then, when targeted results are achieved, they will be results that matter to the people of the community.

A Model of Effective Community Governance

The Effective Community Governance Model recognizes engaging citizens, measuring results, and getting things done as three “core community skills” that help people and organizations make decisions about what actions to take in a community and help them measure the community’s performance in achieving results. Citizen engagement invests legitimacy in those decisions and performance measures. To be effective, a community—or community serving organization—will align two or all three of them to perform the “advanced governance practices of the governance model.

Effective Community Governance Model

The four “Advanced Governance Practices” are represented by the overlapping areas in the figure, which represent alignment of “Core Community Skills” as follows:

  1. Community Problems Solving: Aligns “Engaging Citizens” and “Getting Things Done.”
  2. Organizations Managing for Results: Aligns “Measuring Results” and “Getting Things Done.”
  3. Citizens Reaching for Results: Aligns “Engaging Citizens” and “Measuring Results.”
  4. Communities Governing for Results: Aligns all three core skills.

“Aligning” core skills does not simply mean using two or three of the skills. It means combining them in ways so they support each other to make the community more effective at achieving results that matter. When a community becomes most effective at using advanced practices, it not only improves its results in the short term, it also improves the way it improves itself.

How Communities with Effective Governance Improve Themselves

Four key community improvement themes emerged time and again in our research in community and organizational examples of effective governance.

Robust citizen engagement in multiple roles: A fundamental principle of effective governance is that citizens are not just passive customers of services, but they can be engaged in many roles to improve their community. A community that provides citizens opportunities to play a variety of roles can gain many ways to take advantage of citizens' ideas, talents, skills, and resources.

Use of performance feedback in organizational or community decisions:When measured results are analyzed and fed back into planning and decision making, communities and organizations can use what they learn about how they are performing to improve their practices and get better results.

Linking desired results to resources and accountable people or organizations: Commitments of resources and measures of results take on greater meaning if those involved are held accountable for following through on a plan or achieving a measurable goal or target.

Use of collaborations: Collaborations or partnerships that support effective governance can be formed among organizations, among citizens, and between citizens and organizations.

Advanced Practices Influence Community Improvement Themes

Each advanced governance practice can influence how improvement themes play out in a community. For example, in Advanced Practice 2, "Organizations Managing for Results," and Advanced Practice 4, "Communities Governing for Results," performance feedback is systemically built in to how the community or organization functions, and measured results are systemically linked to resources and accountable organizations. The difference is that in Advanced Practice 4, citizens are engaged in setting goals, planning improvements, or measuring results so the systemically achieved results will matter most to the community. In Advanced Practice 3, “Citizens Reaching for Results,” desired results are not systemically linked to resources or accountable organizations. Citizens, perhaps assisted by civic organizations, have to use advocacy or forge collaborations to create those links by getting organizations to voluntarily accept accountability and commit resources to achieving desired results.

Recognizing Past Reforms and Building on Them for the 21st Century

The Effective Community Governance Model recognizes important reforms from the last 10 to 20 years of the 20th century as advanced governance practices. These reforms include how many government and nonprofit service organizations have come to manage themselves for results, and how many civic organizations have supported citizens in "Reaching for Results" by helping them become involved in community measurement. Also, while citizen engagement in "community problem solving" goes back centuries—at least in the United States—the governance model still recognizes it as an important advanced governance practice. The Effective Community Governance Model then builds upon all these practices and past reforms to present Advanced Practice 4, “Communities Governing for Results,” as an Advanced Governance Practice for the 21st century. As Communities Governing for Results involves systemically aligning all three core community skills, examples in communities are harder to find. Chapters 7 and 8 of the book Results That Matter present four in-depth case studies of Communities Governing for Results. Three are led by local governments, and one is led by a private-public collaborative that invests in nonprofit community development.