The “Community Engagement Governance Framework” – Introduction

Judy Freiwirth’s Community Engagement Governance Framework is proving effective with non-profit governance, but how well does it transfer to elected local and tribal governing bodies?

The Community Engagement Governance Project, a national network of practitioners and researchers, has developed the Community Engagement Governance Framework, largely in response to the inadequacy of traditional governance models for non-profits. Judy Freiwirth, psychologist, Principal of Nonprofit Solutions Associates and lead developer for the Project, has written and presented extensively about the ongoing research and development of the framework with nonprofit organizations and networks. In my 15-plus years with Michigan State University Extension working with local and tribal governments, I have observed some of the same inadequacies of these governance models for government legislative bodies.

I had an opportunity to hear Freiwirth speak on this topic at the “Critical Conversations on the Future of Nonprofit Governance” conference at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in April 2013, and was intrigued by the possibility of applying this framework to government boards. This article series is a brief review of the framework, largely as described in Freiwirth’s article “Community Engagement Governance: Systems-Wide Governance in Action” published in The Nonprofit Quarterly, May 2011. I have added some of my own thoughts about its applicability to governments.

Freiwirth writes of issues such as current top-down governance approaches such as reliance on an executive manager, a trend toward professionalism and the need to advance democracy in decision-making as reasons why a new approach is needed. As we look at governance by governmental boards, the same trends are evident. While our system of government is based on principles of representative democracy, citizens are increasingly frustrated with disconnects between themselves and those who seek to govern them. The need for new approaches is perhaps more acute in the government arena in order to bridge that disconnect.

Our systems of government have been designed to change slowly, to force discussion, deliberation and consideration of all elements of an issue in the decision-making process. Structural change is an even more deliberative and cumbersome process. All of this adds up to increasing levels of citizen frustration as they compare government slowness with the increasingly fast changes they see in nearly every aspect of the world around them. Elements of the Community-Engagement Governance framework can be applied to government boards to bridge that speed and connection gap, bringing greater citizen involvement to the process without fundamentally changing the process.

The variety of structures, sizes, responsibilities and many other aspects of governments and the communities they serve is similar to the differences that exist between nonprofits. Freiwirth says that the flexibility is a significant advantage of the framework over traditional models. This characteristic would be particularly useful for governments as well.

This is the first in a series of six articles about the Community Engagement Governance framework on the Michigan State University Extension web site. Read more at:

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