What Does a Digital Board Portal Have to Do With Governance?

Lena Eisenstein
7 min read

A good tool brings benefits that surpass the intentions of its inventor. Medieval scientists invented the compass because Muslims outside the Arabian Peninsula needed to face Mecca to pray, but it made possible the maritime exploration responsible for the European discoveries of 'the New World' and beyond. Those discoveries, in turn, awakened Oxford intellectuals from centuries of reliance on ancient Greek authority in natural science. (How could Aristotle have 'known everything' if his map of the world excluded entire continents?) Empirical experimentation exploded, and the scientific method finally came together in the 17th century. Modern medicine, quantum theory and industrial manufacturing were wholly unintended consequences of the simple quest for a tool to help Islamic adherents follow a tenet of their faith. Tools continue to deliver unforeseen benefits. With its initial appeal merely as a paper-saving device, the digital board portal has made possible smoother board meetings, remote group editing, tighter protection of confidential materials and effortless compliance with sunshine laws.

Smoother Board Meetings

The backroom work needed for board meetings has gotten a lot easier. Simply creating the agenda and board packet used to require multiple trips to the library ' followed by thankless hours of photocopying, collating and mailing. The haggard board chair or her administrative assistant worked late, drank pots of coffee and fixed paper jams. During the meeting, board members might shuffle through their binders to find relevant material on points as they were raised in discussion. Sometime the following week, the board secretary who took minutes typed them up and mailed them out to board members. He also tacked the required 'public' copy on a bulletin board or filed it in a binder buried in a dusty cubicle in Town Hall.

With a digital board portal, it's not just better. It's easier. The board chair collects material for board packets from the comfort of her office. Online sources and her own curated archive of related materials bring the world to her laptop. What once took sleepless nights now takes a few hours and the click of a mouse. During the meeting, the board secretary can direct the attention of the group to the precise spot in a document that pertains to each topic that is raised; the portal's archive is fully searchable.

This directed quest saves time and confusion, but it also retains the chair's authority in the room. If each board member starts on an individual hunt through countless pages in her binder, the group's focus and cohesion enter a precipitous freefall. In an open meeting, such a loss of control invites the kind of spontaneous eruptions from attendees for which municipal meetings are infamous. After the meeting, a robust portal can generate minutes from the secretary's notes and post them in a matter of seconds onto the board portal where anyone in the public can read them ' even people who don't get out much and the younger generation, who were traditionally less involved in municipal affairs.

Confidential Material Protection

Without a digital portal, all of those paper copies of meeting materials could end up absolutely anywhere. A school board member might leave them in the den, where her teenage son reads about criminal proceedings against a popular teacher. Soon, every student in the school knows about it. Or board packet attachments might end up in the magazine pocket of a plane on a business trip. The next passenger could be a journalist, a disgruntled constituent or a fanatic for a cause that could benefit from this information. There's no controlling the proliferation of the documents.

Robust board portals keep protected information under lock and key. Role-based authorizations mean that small groups with different degrees of clearance can read versions of documents with varying levels of confidential detail. Should the board member leave his phone or tablet on a plane, he could still protect its contents by remotely wiping its memory. If they're hosted by private servers (good portals are), any information posted there is also free from the growing security threat of cloud exposure.

Next to this level of precise trackability, our previous handling of confidential material seems sloppy and irresponsible. A simple public website does not allow the board to share any confidential information among limited groups, and the paper copies of a bygone era now seem practically criminal in their inadvertent accessibility. Email attachments are easy prey for hackers, who can access not only the confidential material in the attachment, but also all of the contents of the network, of which the email account is a part, such as health records, salaries and litigation details.

Remote Group Editing

Group work on paper copies ' or even emailed documents ' is nothing short of a nightmare. With those tools, it is tempting to compromise on democratic input for the sheer sanity of having a single editor. Consider paper: On the same Wednesday, Regina in Chicago and Robert in Carbondale might both mark up version 1 of document X. They would then mail their markups to Kate in St. Charles. Ideally, Kate could incorporate both sets of edits into a second version of the document ' X.2. She might, though, receive Robert's on Monday, create a second version from there (X.2), and then receive Regina's on Tuesday, with no indication that Regina's comments don't incorporate Robert's remarks. If Regina also named her file X.2, calamity ensues. Kate can probably keep track of that chain of communications when only two participants are involved, but it's harder as more participants join in. Introduce rapid-fire emailing, and all bets are off: Multiple untracked copies become untraceable in terms of who-knew-what-when.

A board portal keeps everybody on the same page at the same time. When Regina alters a paragraph in Chicago, the resulting version becomes the one that Robert accesses in Carbondale when he pulls up the portal. Regina's name even appears by each change that she made. If desired, a single editor can still retain the sole technical ability to smooth out all of the changes that ensue in order to create a clean final copy free of markup notations.

Sunshine Law Compliance

Open government is as American as apple pie. Abundant transparency sustains the community trust without which public boards can do nothing. Our sunshine laws require meetings to be broadly publicized to the public, with agendas and minutes posted as prominently as possible. That once meant sending copies to the local papers and taping announcements to the walls of civic buildings like libraries, where few people read them. Posting them on a public-facing board portal saves time even as it increases actual readership.

Documents, too, must be open to the public, in keeping with fast-evolving state laws. Paper copies can reside in libraries or town halls, but digital versions can meet readers where they live. On a secure portal, they also don't attract the attention of hackers, who are increasingly targeting small to medium-size online targets. Exposure on the cloud (through a garden-variety website provider) is simply too risky. In addition to keeping documents out of the cloud, sophisticated board portals also increase the encryption of posted documents, adding another layer of protection from cybercriminals.

Digital board portals have grown to do so much more than save paper. In the right hands, they let a board open their meetings and their records to constituents (but not to hackers), protect confidential material with precision control, run meetings with finesse and create masterful documents reflecting input from multiple remote contributors.

Building a board is important and complex. One would not use a rusty saw to cut a single piece of wood, let alone to build an inspired edifice. Reliance on pre-portal governance tools gives board chairs similarly shoddy tools for their ambitious enterprise. Paper, email and unsecured websites put a drag on governance performance that is hard to defend now that secure portals have raised the bar.