Eight Signs Your Public Board Should Invest in a Board Portal

Lena Eisenstein
9 min read
Public boards rightly pride themselves on frugality. The cost of a board portal appears as a number, while the savings they create in time, frustration and staffing are harder to quantify ' though no less real. If you've encountered any of these eight situations, it's time to take the plunge: Avoiding the investment in board portal software is crippling your organization.
  1. You spend too much time and money making board packets.

The routine is all too familiar: The chairman or her assistant solicits materials, finds readings at the library, copies them, assembles them into neat sets, stuffs them into individual envelopes, hauls them to the post office, pays a fortune in postage and mails them off to the board members in time for them to read what is sometimes a 200-page compilation of documents.

The anxiety does not end when you leave the post office. What if one item will not be off the press until the day before the meeting? Do you delay sending the entire packet? Do you do a second mailing? What if you find a mistake in something you already mailed out? Do you send that page alone in a separate mailing? It's better form to send the entire report of which it's a part, but that means yet more time, paper and postage.

At one time, this circus was unavoidable. The whole process became enshrouded in an air of professionalism and nostalgia. But surely we were only making a virtue of a necessity.

With a board portal, it's possible to get the board packets distributed without paper, without trips to the library, without collation, without manila envelopes, without postage and without headaches. Subsequent additions or revisions can be sent with the click of a mouse. As a bonus, you even save a couple of days in mailing time to pull it all together. Just post the digitized packet materials as agenda attachments (for board members' eyes only) on the board portal. If one document changes, amend it on the board portal and send an email alerting the board to the change.
  1. Aimless board meetings don't accomplish anything.

Board members may change their travel plans or miss their kids' soccer games to attend every board meeting conscientiously, but sometimes the meetings don't get anything done. If you asked yourself at the close of a recent meeting, 'What have we achieved?' the honest answer may have been: 'Everybody expressed their opinions.' It's understandable if a board member feels that his time is not respected.

Such meetings can be easily redeemed, and a board portal can help. What they need is structure and intention. The agenda itself, distributed on a board portal, can include links for each item to additional readings stored in a digital archive. In the meeting, when a question of facts arises (e.g., 'Didn't we reject that proposal last February?'), the minutes are but a click away. You need not table the issue until someone checks and reports back ' by which time an opportunity may have lapsed. And everyone in the meeting can have their eyes on the same document as it's pulled up from the digital records; an HDMI link to the conference room projector focuses the room on a shared image of a single page. Otherwise, such moments often cause the group focus to disintegrate as each member conducts an individual search of materials.

The chair should also craft the agenda to indicate exactly what actions are to be taken on each item. Passive terms like 'discuss' and 'explore' will give way to: 'discuss and vote on final recommendation to send to the Executive Director' or 'discuss as Stage One of three fact-finding meetings to precede a policy vote.' The board will get things done, and members will appreciate that their time and effort are being used to achieve measurable results.
  1. You're alarmed by the prospect of data breaches, but don't know how to protect yourself.

It's no secret that public entities are considered a treasure chest to hackers. The city of Atlanta learned that after a ransomware scheme cost them over $2 million last year. The Colorado Department of Transportation ground operations to a halt when they were hacked. Chernobyl even re-emerged as a potential Armageddon when hackers commandeered civic sites in Kiev. You know the severity of the risk.

You don't know what to do about it, though. Hiring sophisticated IT staff is not an option in a town where the legal counsel does double duty as the crossing guard. Yet the threat is international in scope, morphing daily to outsmart new defenses. You're not networking with sister organizations that are facing the same threat. You need James Bond, but your budget supports Barney Fife.

What if you could buy a timeshare in cutting-edge talent that is concentrating 24/7 on the evolving threats to organizations like yours? You can: If you buy the right board portal software, you effectively outsource much of your security to a large board-based, tech-savvy company with world-class IT expertise. You essentially pool your resources with those of other boards to profit from the portal provider's savoir faire and continuous scrutiny.

The portal also keeps your data safe by storing all of your documents on a private, cloud-based server. So it's not on 'the cloud,' where Google Docs stores documents; it's stored on a server that is as difficult to penetrate as the 'public' cloud is easy to get into. (Look for full 256-bit encryption and the exact words 'private server.') You get that service for less than it would cost you to hire Barney Fife.
  1. You could not produce a complete set of records in the event of an audit.

Audits, investigations and lawsuits call for comprehensive, searchable records of all your board business, but most of us keep partial, unsearchable records at best. A state-of-the-art portal lets you conduct a meta-search that penetrates all of your files with a keystroke. It also provides a one-stop shop for storing everything from transportation receipts to MOUs to legal advice to voting records. If investigators come knocking, you'll have what you need.
  1. You dread the one-time mishap as you juggle the confidentiality of board materials with the 'openness' of meetings.

Board members must read the mental health records of an employee accused of harassment. Not even one unauthorized user can ever read those details under any circumstances whatsoever. Your agendas, documents and archives must satisfy the requirements of open-meeting and open-record laws.

There is no place for human error in such high-stakes distribution requirements. Without a board portal, you might cut-and-paste the names of recipients of a past email to receive a new email containing classified board records. Perhaps the school superintendent or the mayor was included on that one-time board email list, though. So now you're sending protected details to an unauthorized user. (You're also using email for board business, which makes light work of hackers' scams.)

A robust portal such as BoardDocs prevents such a devastating catastrophe. Board materials with different levels of detail are distributed to different recipients based on their constant role in the organization: executive, administrative or public. So there's never a slipup ' not even once.
  1. Meeting all of your governance requirements feels like playing whack-a-mole.

Little did the board chair know that he would suddenly be expected to fully understand, comply with and constantly update so many facets of board governance:
  • Cybersecurity has earned a place in the boardroom as a cross-enterprise top priority. Hackers adapt their tactics daily. How do you keep up?
  • Board communications may put critical information at high risk for hacking. Email and standard texting apps are easy prey for cybercriminals, and they're easily discoverable in litigation.
  • Open-meeting laws increasingly require digital posting of agendas. Digitizing all of those binders is daunting enough. While you're going through the trouble, you know they would be far more useful if you entered them into a searchable archive.
  • Open-record laws might include digitizing archives. Again, making such voluminous data searchable would make it far more useful.
  • ADA compliance requirements for public-facing websites are developing rapidly. You might be an accountant by day, but now you need to know the different levels of WCAG standards ''' and which ones are currently required.
  • Confidential board materials must stay segregated from public information. A portal with role-based authorizations keeps the wall between them firmly in place.
  1. Your board and your public are greying.

Does the same cast of characters show up at all of your public meetings? And on the board itself? Are they all over 40? Younger people are often enticed for the first time to contribute to civic affairs when the information meets them in their native habitat: the internet. Expecting every citizen to saunter past the Town Hall and read every notice on the bulletin board may have satisfied legal requirements, but it just isn't sexy.
  1. When more than one person comments on a document, chaos ensues.

On Monday, Sally marks up a document and sends on her doctored version to the rest of the board as 'edit 1.' Also on Monday, without reading Sally's version, Robert marks up the same source document and sends it around as 'Robert's Comments.' On Tuesday, Ricardo adds his notes to Robert's version, assuming wrongly that it had incorporated Sally's comments. He renames the resulting file 'Round Three.' Each of the other board members now faces a mess, which only multiplies as the week rolls on.

Collaborative editing on a board portal stops the madness. When any board member makes notes on a document shared on the portal, that version instantaneously refreshes on the portal that every board member pulls up from that point forward. Moreover, the portal identifies the authors of each comment with color coding. One supervisory editor can be designated to integrate all of the comments at a specified point in time.

If any of these headaches is sapping your time, energy and focus, it's time to invest in board portal software. You're incurring costs that you don't recognize: Better legal compliance could leave you far less exposed, countless governance priorities could be streamlined, morale could be higher, turnover could be lower and citizen engagement could soar. The question then is not whether you can afford the price of board portal software, but how can you possibly afford to live without it?