Count the Cost: Why Public Boards Should Budget for a Board Portal

Lena Eisenstein
Bad governance can destroy a public board. Trust is the most valuable asset of governmental entities, and a seemingly small oversight can quickly balloon into a veritable scandal. One leak, one data breach, one secret-seeming meeting, and an organization can spend years regaining the confidence of the constituency it serves. So getting the right tool for the job is a necessity, not a luxury.

When shopping around for a board portal, though, it can seem that frugality is the sole metric of good stewardship. Investing in a portal that will make your board's governance above reproach, though, is not the same as squandering public funds on a sports car. To make that investment wisely, you need only clarify exactly what your board needs in a portal. Pay what you must for that ' no more, no less.

Public boards face tight budgets. Habitual bargain hunters, these boards are undoubtedly drawn to the cheapest options: either the free downloadable software advertised on the internet; low-cost software that is installed one time on a hard drive, with no future updates or training assistance or customer service; or customized software built in-house by the IT staff.

None of these solutions provides the full suite of features that are non-negotiable for public boards. They might facilitate collaborative editing and one or two other vital capacities, but none of them delivers everything you need, at great cost. Only a service-oriented, updating board portal software provider fits the bill, saving money in the long term, while protecting public safety and private information. No other software source provides all of the features without which a public board cannot do its job responsibly: different documents for different audiences, robust and upgraded security, evolving governance features, committed customer service, training support, predictable costs, searchable record archiving and video embedding.

Different documents for different audiences

On the one hand, public boards are subject to open-meeting and open-record laws. On the other hand, they handle legislatively protected sensitive information. The board or a select committee needs to see full accounts of narratives that may include staff mental health information, interpersonal conflicts, criminal allegations, and legal opinions. The public must see versions of such narratives without any such details, and the two can never get mixed up. That makes role-based authorization a must-have: software with this capacity makes different versions of the same document readable by different audiences when they log on to the portal. Their access is determined by their role (which is entered once), so there's no retyping (or cutting and pasting) of group email addresses, at which point mistakes can be made.

Robust and updated security

Security compromises come at great cost ' to public trust, to municipal operations, to financial integrity and to public safety. Hackers find school boards and municipalities hot targets. A software board portal product that doesn't come with strong security updates may as well have no security at all. Cheap security costs a fortune. Subpar security created public emergencies for the Dallas, Texas, disaster preparedness system, Colorado's transportation services, ATMs in the town of Kiev, and even the radioactive security of Chernobyl. Hackers innovate fast; programmers are constantly adapting to their latest moves and anticipating the next one. Out-of-the-box software typically does not provide ongoing security updates, and in-house IT departments may lack the manpower and sophistication to constantly monitor international threats to cybersecurity. A full-service portal provider will also regularly conduct security audits and penetration tests. Atlanta learned the hard way to stay on top of cybersecurity. It made security upgrades a low priority until a March 2018 cyberattack cost them over $2 million to restore their data and fortify their safeguards. Nobody congratulated them for saving money on pre-emptive measures not taken, and their skimping actually made them update their system in crisis mode, at greater cost. The entire debacle cost them three times what it would have cost to install sufficient cybersecurity in the first place.

Evolving Governance Features

Governance updates are coming fast and furious to the public sector. State by state, legislators are revising what it means to hold an 'open' meeting, what makes data fully 'open' to journalists and researchers, and how boards must measure their progress and evaluate their performance. In every instance, the new requirements call for technological adaptations. A one-time software product has no way of keeping up with these changing governance requirements.

Committed Customer Service

If a public-facing website on a board portal stops working at 2:00 in the morning, essential services could grind to a halt. Yet, most software companies take calls only from 9:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. And many send calls to voicemail. Computer crises can't wait. An award-winning customer service record is a minimal requirement of a software provider.

Training Support

People rotate onto and off of boards all the time. Staff turnover is a fact of life. When someone new steps in, how will they know how to leverage all the powers of the software? A service-oriented software provider, unlike a vendor of out-of-the-box software company, provides videos and webinars to train anyone who is new to the software. If an in-house IT department builds the software, training might be low on their list of priorities.

Predictable Costs

Public boards work from politically determined budgets that leave no room for surprises. Full-service portal software has an annual subscription fee that covers all security updates, training, customer service, ADA-mandated adaptations, and governance-related updates. In addition to jeopardizing public safety and privacy, low-cost software without continuous improvements leaves a board stranded. It may have to hire expensive consultants to make upgrades or provide training. It may have to simply or replace the last generation of software. It might face fines or penalties if it is not current with open-meeting, open-record, and ADA requirements.

Searchable Record Archiving

Open-record laws increasingly require public records to appear online, not just in dusty binders. Imagine looking for every mention of 'redistricting' from records for the last five years. Filenames do not convey enough information. Public records become useful to researchers and journalists only when a keyword meta-search can cut across different files in different formats to quickly spot every usage of the term. It's a rare feature of the best full-feature software.

Video Embedding

The ability to store video on a public-facing website is essential to public boards striving for ever greater transparency. Free downloadable board software doesn't provide it, and much out-of-the-box board software doesn't include it. Taping and posting public meetings bolsters public trust; video could appear alongside the meeting minutes. Delaware is even considering legislation that would make the posting of video documenting public meetings a requirement for public boards.

Board software that does not provide all of these features may have a low sticker price, but it creates long-term costs and inefficiencies that result in a bad bargain. You get what you pay for, so remember to choose wisely.
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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.