Rethinking the Committee and Governance Models for Small Public Organizations (BIAs, BIDs, BRZs)

That beautiful steel bench in your local business neighbourhood didn’t get there by random luck. A board of volunteer business owners put aside some time to meet and discuss how to use funds collected from local members, decided that benches were a good investment, drafted and issued a request-for-proposal seeking vendors who could provide benches, selected the best candidate, and ordered benches from that candidate, which were finally installed in your business neighbourhood last year.

Of course, it’s never that easy.

Committees can get things done, but it’s a slow, inefficient process. Rightfully, the speed of execution tends to be inversely proportional to the importance of the task. This helps prevent poor decision making, something that’s particularly necessary for local volunteer boards because the directors who make the decisions may not be the best qualified on all given subjects. Take your typical board of directors for an average sized Business Improvement Area (200 members) — perhaps you have 7 directors each with their own specialty reflected in the business they run: Restaurateur, Pizza Shop, Dance Studio, Gift Shop, Funeral Home, Web Developer, and Nail Salon.

These 7 directors are awesome people, just by virtue of volunteering their time to help the collective community. However, and despite their best intentions, they’re stuck voting equally on all matters. This creates two issues:

  1. Anyone carrying out the work (administrator, coordinator) needs to ‘check in’ frequently with the committee or the whole board to ensure agreement is obtained on key decisions. This costs a lot of people a lot of time.
  2. Too many directors are bothered with making decisions on something they’re less familiar with than the local expert(s) in the group.

With time at an increasing cost, we need a more efficient system to make quicker and better informed decisions. Enter Vote Delegation.

Vote Delegation, also known as Liquid Democracy, is a proposed representation system that allows individuals to transfer their vote to someone else under specific circumstances.

Following the previous example, Dance Studio would make it known from the start that he is transferring his vote on all matters related to marketing to Web Developer, as well as transferring his vote for all streetscape initiatives to Funeral Home because that director has a demonstrated background in landscape architecture. In fact, 5 out of the 6 other directors have opted to transfer their vote on all marketing matters to Web Developer and Restaurateur, while 1 out of 6 chose to retain her vote. This then means that only 3 people are contacted to carry out a vote on a marketing issue (Web Developer representing 3, Restaurateur representing 3, and Nail Salon). Thus, only 2 people need to check in before we can figure out what the final vote is.

This is compared to the previous model where all 7 people were contacted and 4 votes were needed.

Using Vote Delegation, there are not only fewer phone calls and emails being circulated, but we’re not bothering those who are uninterested in or uninformed about the task at hand.

Requirements to enabling Vote Delegation will depend on a few things, many of which are already within reach of most established, stable public organizations similar to Business Improvement Areas/Districts, or Business Revitalization Zones.

  1. At first, there needs to be some degree of familiarity and trust. As a director who has been voted in by the general membership, you don’t want to transfer over your vote without getting to know the person(s) you’re transferring your vote to. If it takes 6 months before directors start assigning votes to one another, that’s ok too.
  2. List in as much detail as possible all areas that might come up for discussion throughout the year. This can be done using nested lists, by starting with the major initiative categories, then adding sub-items — as much or as little as agreed upon. The start of a list might look something like this:
Start with an indented bullet list covering all potential initiatives. Your actual list will probably be much longer.

3. Take your list and have everyone write in the name of the vote transferee:

Dave has assigned his vote to be transferred to other directors, but hangs on to his vote for some items he knows a lot about.

4. Tabulate everyone’s delegates:

5. Determine names and vote weights going forward

In most cases, decisions can now be made by fewer people

Other Requirements:

  1. Start with the small decisions, then keep checking back and ensuring that votes were delegated to the right people. If need be, make adjustments and take a vote back, or transfer it to someone else if needed.
  2. The more you know one another, the easier the process works, since there’s a strong (but easily correctable) trust component.
  3. Ensure buy-in from stakeholders — specifically, the general membership, as well as any municipal level government that regulates your organization.
  4. Optional, but helpful — using some sort of vote delegation software to record all votes in one place. This comes in handy when reviewing past votes and determining if your vote delegate has been voting in line with your wishes.
  5. Additional controls can be included if needed. Minimum X number of individuals are required to vote (regardless of vote weight), paid expert delegates can be used, specified vote review days, etc…

Taking it a step further, this same method of representation can be opened up to the entire general membership (in our example, to all 200 member businesses). While this is a considerably larger task to setup and organize, bringing in a larger pool of talented individuals can yield even better results. Now, instead of relying on very few experts out of a small pool of 7 directors, we can get 5 experts from a pool of 200 members. By assigning votes to individuals who have higher degrees of specialty, we increase the quality of the final deliverables. If we remove the ‘directors-only’ qualification to be a vote representative, then we’re now also able to access experts who only have the time to discuss their area of expertise, but otherwise would not have joined as a director.