Promoting Good Governance Within Your Agency
This column is a service of the Institute for Local Government (ILG), whose mission is to promote good government at the local level with practical, impartial and easy-to-use resources for California communities. For more information and to access ILG’s resources on public service ethics, visit www.ca-ilg.org/trust.
How can my agency determine whether it is engaging in good governance practices and identify areas where improvements can be made?
Good governance depends on officials and staff knowing and understanding the duties and responsibilities of their agency — and their position within the agency — as well as the relevant laws and requirements that govern it.
Good governance also requires transparency to ensure that an agency is acting on behalf of the community’s well-being. Hal Conklin, former mayor of Santa Barbara and a League past president, describes the hallmarks of good governance as “complete transparency, both on the part of the agency as a whole and the individuals in the agency. Public agencies must be encouraged to set the bar high — to be both transparent and public about their transparency.”
Local government agencies must take great care to effectively use public resources, which are often limited, to address the community’s greatest needs.
Michael Kasperzak, a council member and former mayor of Mountain View and a League past president, suggests that good governance entails engaging the community and making decisions by acting on behalf of the community’s best interests. To understand the concerns of the community, decision-makers and staff must encourage participation in council meetings, make themselves available to community members outside council chambers and help the public better understand how they can share their concerns.
How Can an Agency Promote Good Governance Practices?
An agency can adopt a variety of protocols and procedures to minimize the risk of missteps and promote the public’s trust and confidence in its governance practices. California law1 provides some guidance on procedural requirements for local agencies, and many professional organizations have developed best practices that go beyond the minimum standards. Such organizations include the League’s City Managers’ Department, California State Association of Counties, Government Finance Officers Association and California Special District Leadership Foundation.
The Institute for Local Government (ILG) recently released “The Good Governance Checklist: Good and Better Practices,” a new self-assessment tool for local government agencies. The checklist is designed to help local officials and staff determine whether their agency is engaged in basic good governance practices (some of which are required by law) and identify where the agency has set its sights higher and is using better governance practices.
Many agencies are already implementing many of the practices highlighted by the checklist. The list also suggests ideas for instituting additional policies and practices that help promote good governance and minimize the risk of missteps that could undermine or damage public trust and confidence.
The Good Governance Checklist is organized by the following areas.
Stewardship of Public Resources covers items related to transparency in agency finances and accounting practices. Topics include budgets and financial reporting, auditing practices and implementing effective internal controls as well as common day-to-day issues such as expense reimbursement and allowances and the use of agency resources and equipment.
Transparency comprises items related to the requirements of California’s open government laws, such as the Ralph M. Brown Open Meetings Act, California’s Public Records Act, conflict-of-interest laws and disclosure requirements. Beyond the legal requirements, this section also includes practical tools and tips that can help an agency improve its transparency efforts and effectively engage the public that it serves.
Education, Training and Personnel presents ways to help an agency ensure that its employees and officials receive critical information about their duties and responsibilities as part of their orientation and that their ongoing training needs are understood and met. This section also outlines personnel policies and hiring practices for local agencies and ways to encourage dialogue with staff regarding potential concerns about agency activities.
Campaigns focuses on information that can help candidates run a fair campaign and reminds staff and officials of the prohibitions related to the use of public resources for political purposes.
The checklist also incorporates practices that promote intergovernmental collaboration and partnerships as well as ways that an agency can include sustainability in its governance practices.
The City of Santa Monica beta-tested the checklist. City Manager Rod Gould sat down with department heads and advisory staff to compare their city’s practices with those outlined in the checklist. Gould was pleased to see that they were already engaging in many of the practices listed. Where they weren’t, the checklist served as a catalyst to stimulate discussion about areas where the city could make improvements. Gould says, “For any organization committed to improving its governance practices, this checklist is a great tool to get the process started.”
Make Good Governance Efforts Ongoing
The Good Governance Checklist (at www.ca-ilg.org/goodgovernance) can be used as an initial assessment tool, a way to spur conversations within an agency about where improvements can be made and a mechanism for regularly re-evaluating your agency’s practices over time.
More Tools and Resources
In addition to the Good Governance Checklist, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) offers a variety of free tools and resources for new and seasoned local public officials and employees.
Local Government Basics. Newly elected local officials can access materials designed to get their public service off to a strong start (at www.ca-ilg.org/local-government-basics-those-new-public-service), including information about local agency responsibilities and powers, budget and finance, land use, working with staff and other essential topics.
Local officials can use nuts-and-bolts information (at www.ca-ilg.org/local-government-basics) to help the public and the media understand local agency structures and processes.
Ethics and Transparency. ILG’s Ethics and Transparency program offers practical information on principles of public service ethics as well as plain-language explanations of California’s ethics laws. It provides tools for promoting public trust and confidence in local government and also offers in-person and self-study options for compliance with California’s mandatory ethics education requirements (at www.ca-ilg.org/trust).
Public Engagement. This program offers information and resources to help local officials and their communities implement effective and inclusive public engagement activities. ILG’s offerings include direct assistance and training for local agencies; regional and statewide workshops and conference sessions; webinars; and materials on a wide variety of topics. More information about ILG’s public engagement resources can be found at www.ca-ilg.org/public-engagement.
Sustainable Communities. ILG’s Sustainable Communities program helps local officials create and maintain communities that are prosperous, healthy and environmentally sustainable. Local officials and staff can access a comprehensive framework of sustainability best practices, learn how to participate in ILG’s Beacon Program and find online resource centers on multiple sustainability-related topics including SB 375, healthy neighborhoods and sustainable economic development at www.ca-ilg.org/sustainable-communities.
Collaboration and Partnerships. Local agencies working together — as well as with community-based organizations — to serve shared constituencies and clients can provide essential services and maximize limited resources. Employing approaches such as partnerships, shared services and joint use of facilities helps to increase staffing efficiencies and reduce costs. Collaborative efforts that involve nonprofits, businesses, social service organizations and government agencies benefit the community by enhancing access to services and support and thus improving outcomes. More information about collaboration and partnerships is online at www.ca-ilg.org/collaboration-partnerships.
Additional materials and resources are available from ILG and the Cities Counties Schools (CCS) Partnership, whose mission is to improve the conditions of children, families and communities at the local level by promoting and encouraging coordination, integration and increased efficiency of local services and joint facilities use among cities, counties and schools in all California communities. Information about the CCS Partnership is available at www.ccspartnership.org.
 See, e.g., Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 6250-70, 54950-63.