|Learn how to set up oversight systems and processes that are relevant to community health and community building.|
Examples of oversight mechanisms include:
- A citizen review board that investigates complaints of police brutality.
- An in-house quality control team that determines whether the company’s methods and products are up to standard.
- A system by which students can evaluate their courses and the teaching of their instructors.
- A diverse committee that reviews the experiences of patients at a local clinic.
In this section, we’ll look at ways to set up processes that help assure accountability.
What do we mean by oversight and oversight mechanisms?
Oversight refers to maintaining a watchful eye on something. For instance, in the case of a citizen review board, an internal group monitors the quality and effectiveness of the service their organization provides. Oversight involves taking responsibility for the operation, implementation, and/or outcome of a process, program, organization or institution, or effort.
An oversight mechanism is the system or process used to maintain a watchful eye.
Just as every writer needs an editor, those doing work that affects the community need monitoring to assure that their work is effective, of high quality, and follows rules and regulations properly.
Oversight is a matter of someone paying attention. It is meant to catch potential problems as they arise, and to make sure that nothing is being done that’s likely to cause problems later. For instance, good oversight can detect illegal or unethical practices on the part of a business or government agency, pinpoint and change bad financial practices in a non-profit organization, or make sure that the public’s health is protected.
Oversight may be official – required by law or by external or internal regulations – or unofficial, as in the case of a watchdog group overseeing whether a government agency conducts itself fairly and according to its mandate. When oversight is official, the mechanisms for it – as well as the individual or group that is responsible for exercising it – are often specified by the laws or regulations that require it. When oversight is unofficial, the overseeing group or individual may be self-appointed, or may be asked to do the job.
Where oversight involves responsibility for the functioning and/or results of something, it can be set up within an agency, corporation, institution, or organization, or may be overseen by another body.
The activities of community health and development organizations can span a broad range, from planning, to intervention, to advocacy, among others. Maintaining the quality of these activities requires oversight mechanisms that reflect the vision, mission, values, and goals of the groups and individuals engaging in them. We’ll discuss establishing oversight mechanisms with that in mind.
Why establish oversight mechanisms?
There are a number of reasons why you might want to set up oversight:
- To assure accountability. Oversight is also used to hold individuals and groups accountable for operating legally, ethically, and responsibly, and for producing the services, products, and/or outcomes they have promised or are contracted to provide.
- To control quality. We normally think of quality control as an industrial issue, but it also applies to the quality of services, facilities, etc.
- To ensure adherence to laws and regulations. Oversight may be used to make sure those agencies, corporations, and other entities – or departments or programs within those entities – are operating according to the rules set up by laws, controlling agencies, funders, or the entities themselves.
- To control unfair treatment, corruption, illegality, and unethical behavior. Oversight includes processes for protecting against unfair treatment in which some groups benefit and others are excluded. Corruption by public officials—including the theft or misdirection of government funds and goods—can often be prevented, detected, or stopped by careful oversight. The same is true for illegal or unethical acts that are harmful to society, to particular groups, and to those who are meant to be served or helped by the groups or individuals committing those acts.
- To ensure the effectiveness of programs or efforts for which you have responsibility. If you’re responsible, you need to make sure that everyone involved is following the process that’s been set up, and that the work is going according to plan. Oversight will also help you spot when the plan isn’t working, and help you and others involved determine how to change or fix it.
- To help improve the wellbeing for everyone. Community wellbeing is enhanced when community interventions and initiatives are effective, when government is doing its job, when employers treat workers with respect and with concern for their safety, when business and government work to preserve rather than damage the environment, and when all community members get what they need to live.
Who should be involved in establishing oversight mechanisms?
The goal of effective oversight is to improve quality and to help people and organizations do the best work they can on behalf of the community. It often makes sense, therefore, to involve a variety of people and groups in the oversight process. Asking participants or students to evaluate the services or education they’re getting and recruiting community members to oversee local government services are two of many ways to accomplish this.
Those who might be involved in oversight to make the process more comprehensive and useful include:
- Those from the groups most affected by the issue or situation involved.
- Those providing the service or products for which oversight is directed (i.e., those being overseen).
- Those ultimately responsible for the success of the effort – program directors, school principals, elected or appointed officials, etc.
- Funders and others contributing resources or support to the implementation of the effort.
- Community activists concerned with the issue or effort in question.
The oversight process works best if it is participatory, including both those affected and those responsible. Selection of who participates can be more challenging when the group or individuals at whom oversight is directed are resistant to being watched.
When should you establish oversight mechanisms?
The obvious answer here is “whenever oversight is necessary.” But when is that? The short answer is “whenever there is an effort or situation that needs attention.” Let’s examine what that means.
- When an effort or new program or organization is starting. Oversight should be ongoing from the very beginning, so that quality is at the front of everyone’s mind, and so that problems with implementation or unfair treatment can be caught and addressed as early as possible.
- When a problem needs to be prevented from occurring again. For instance, if the community has experienced patterns of police brutality or discrimination in housing, one way to address the situation is to set up a citizen review committee. This can help address unfair treatment by assuring accountability and establishing a channel of communication between community members and those responsible for institutions that should serve them.
- When the quality or effectiveness of an effort or program is in question. In the ideal, there would have been oversight at the beginning; but if that wasn't the case, it should begin now, and continue as long as the effort does.
- When there is an agreement, contract, or regulation to be followed. Oversight can ensure that all parties fulfill their obligations and get whatever compensation or benefits were promised.
Oversight in this case is often internal, in order to make sure, for example, that money is spent in the ways agreed upon with the funder. When oversight lapses, or when there is none, organizations may misspend money and be forced to pay it back or to close.
- When an entity is engaged in an activity that is potentially harmful to the community, its members, or society. This can mean a violation of the law, such as illegal dumping of pollutants. It can also, however, refer to a private or government-funded construction project, a water treatment or food processing operation, or other perfectly legal activity that nonetheless could cause harm if procedures were not followed. Oversight can both help to prevent harmful situations, and to quickly catch them and spur appropriate steps if they do occur.
How do you establish oversight mechanisms?
In most situations, gather a group of stakeholders to plan and set up oversight mechanisms. As we’ve discussed, oversight often works best when it’s welcomed by everyone involved, and seen as a way to improve the work or the situation. One possible exception here is when the oversight is meant to catch suspected illegal, unethical, or otherwise harmful activity on the part of an entity. Even then, depending on the circumstances, it may make sense to involve representatives of the entity being overseen.
Decide what kind of oversight you need. The nature of the oversight will help you to structure an effective oversight mechanism. There are many different kinds of oversight, including:
- Oversight in terms of accountability. Key questions include: Are people and entities doing their jobs? Do programs and initiatives have a positive effect (and do they have the intended effects)? Who’s responsible for making things better, and who needs help? Are government bodies implementing programs effectively, providing necessary public services, and enforcing laws and regulations consistently and fairly?
- Oversight of the operation of a program, effort, or organization. Key questions include: Is it going according to plan? Is it using the methods and procedures it was designed to? Is it accomplishing what it’s meant to do?
- Oversight of conduct of a service, organization, government agency, etc. Is there fairness, discrimination, or consistency of quality? Is it adhering to rules and regulations in a reasonable way (compliance)? Is it doing its job?
- Oversight of the performance of individuals in an organization or institution – supervision of service providers, teachers, managers, etc. This works better as a formative evaluation; that is, instrumental in helping the individual improve performance—rather than summative judgment leading to punishment.
- Oversight of the conduct of individuals in organizations and government. Are they adhering to the rules, behaving ethically, not overstepping their authority, not engaged in conflicts of interest, etc.?
- Oversight of processes to make sure they’re conducted properly, and that policies and procedures are followed and effective. This includes oversight of budgets to ensure that no one is overspending, or over- (or under-) spending in a particular area, and to flag potential fiscal problems in time to address them.
- Oversight of agreements and contracts to be sure that their terms are carried out as specified, and that both parties are fulfilling their obligations and receiving what was agreed upon.
- Oversight to protect vulnerable individuals. This refers to certain individuals, as well as the services provided to them, that may need to be monitored for their own safety or well-being; for instance, a child with special needs, a hospital or clinic patient, or a frail elder.
Choose an oversight mechanism that is best suited to the type of oversight you expect to conduct. Oversight mechanisms can take a number of different forms, depending on their purpose:
- Oversight by a designated or responsible individual or group. Oversight of an organization may be conducted by its director. Fiscal oversight of an organization, institution, or business may be conducted by its chief fiscal officer, treasurer, or a board financial committee. In some cases, certain individuals or groups – often boards of directors – are legally responsible for ensuring that their organizations act legally and in compliance with the requirements of funders and contracts.
- External oversight by a funder, government agency, or other responsible body. This kind of oversight may take the form of spot checks or regular reports (see below), or may be contracted out to a consultant or third party.
- An oversight committee. This might be a citizen oversight panel for a government agency or service such as the police, environmental services, or public health; or an internal oversight committee within an agency, institution, corporation, or organization. Oversight committees are generally official, established either by or with the collaboration of the body that’s being overseen. Citizen oversight committees almost always include members of the population most affected by the entity being overseen; for instance, tenants for a public housing authority or community residents for a local community health board.
- A watchdog group. This is an organization or less formal group whose mission is to identify and publicize corruption, lawbreaking, discrimination, or other illegal or unethical behavior on the part of government agencies or officials, business and industry, or other sectors of the community that have the power to harm individuals, groups, or the community or society as a whole.
- A monitoring and evaluation process. This could be internal or external, with the monitoring and evaluation carried on within an organization or institution by staff members, or conducted by a consultant or other body from outside. In the ideal, evaluations might be produced annually or more often. These could then be used to assess progress in meeting objectives or determine the quality of services, and to use that information to make indicated improvements.
There are many ways to conduct an evaluation process. It can be collaborative, with everyone involved contributing; or it can be carried out solely by an individual or small group with limited input from anyone else. The Tool Box recommends that an evaluation process be as collaborative and inclusive as possible. If it’s devised and owned by those being overseen by it, and if they participate actively in it, it’s more likely not only to go smoothly, but also to produce accurate and useful information. If it’s seen as an adversary process, an evaluation can precipitate withholding information and cooperation in ways that reduce utility.
- Spot checks by staff, supervisors or program directors. This method might be used in almost any oversight situation where scarce resources make more intensive oversight difficult.
- Regular oral and/or written reports on the work being done and its results. Since the reports are usually prepared by those doing the work that’s being overseen, the effectiveness of this mechanism depends on the reporters’ honesty, perceptiveness, and critical reflection on what is happening.
- Mechanical oversight, as by the use of cameras, audio recorders, or mechanical inspection of activities and products. This method might be used for supervision of activities (e.g., client service) or for environmental efforts (oversight of deforestation or biodiversity, for example). In most cases, the results of the mechanical oversight should be available to review by those who performance or outputs are being watched.
Any or all of these mechanisms can be enhanced by feedback and systematic reflection on what is occurring by those who are the objects of the oversight, and from those most affected by the entity or organization responsible.
Decide who will conduct the actual oversight. This will be determined, at least in part, by what kind of oversight you’re conducting. Internal monitoring might be done by supervisors, with the cooperation of the staff members being monitored, or by a committee composed of staff from different parts of the organization. A funder might exercise oversight through an external consultant or evaluator, or through reporting by the funded agency or organization. An organization’s treasurer or fiscal officer might oversee the budget to make sure that funding is being spent for the approved purposes. A community oversight committee would be composed of community members affected by the agency or activities in question.
Decide on the methods you will use to conduct the oversight. They should be appropriate to the situation and to the character of your organization or effort. The more your organization emphasizes inclusion and participation, for example, the more inclusive and participatory your oversight should be. Any oversight you conduct should model your organization’s vision, philosophy, and standards.
Obviously, methods can vary greatly, depending on the nature of the oversight. You wouldn’t oversee an environmental improvement operation – forest management, wildlife habitat restoration – in the same way you would the functioning of a hospital or the conduct of a government agency.
Some possible methods you might use to implement oversight mechanisms:
- Individual and group interviews with administrators or managers and staff members, present and past participants, funders, and others affected by or familiar with the entity’s work.
- Casual conversation with staff members and administrators.
- Direct observation of the work of the entity. This might entail accompanying staff members periodically, walking through a facility and stopping to watch activity, staying in one place to observe action in the area, etc. In some cases, it might mean going to a place at many different times, days of the week, and seasons to understand what happens there under different circumstances.
- Embedding into the work of the entity, also known as participant observation. In this situation, the person conducting oversight takes on the role of a staff member or administrator and participates in the day-to-day life of the entity.
- Study of organizational or agency files, records, and financial reports, as well as its history, funding sources, and philosophy.
- Research into practice models or theory that underlies the work of the entity.
Train those who will conduct the oversight if necessary. Conducting oversight can be different from conducting an evaluation. You may or may not have the cooperation of the individuals or entity being overseen, even if they are involved in establishing an oversight mechanism for the process. Some important guidelines for oversight, therefore, concern how you approach the individuals and entities subject to it.
You, or whoever is involved in conducting the oversight, particularly those who have never done something similar before, may need training. Some things those who actually conduct the oversight should be guided by include:
- Get to know the organization or entity you’re overseeing – its history, structure, vision and mission, finances, the nature of its staff and administrators, the organizational culture, etc. Learn as much as possible about the work of the entity and the individuals who perform it. Try to get a sense of the pressures and requirements of the work, and of the commitment staff members have to it and to their employer.
- Understand that people may not want you there, either because they don’t want oversight, or because you’re interrupting their work.
- Try to establish a rapport with people you interview or interact with. Be natural and respectful. Treat everyone like a colleague.
- Listen carefully to what people tell you, and ask follow-up questions where it’s appropriate. Listen more than you talk.
- Use open-ended questions as much as possible, i.e., questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer.
- Whenever you’re engaging in oversight activities, use all your senses. Watch body language, pay attention to the environment – noise level, smells, temperature, etc. – and to the interactions among people.
- Take careful notes in whatever way is easiest and most comfortable for you and others. That may mean pencil and paper, a laptop or notebook computer, a smart phone, or a small tape recorder. Whatever you use, you should explain what you’re doing to anyone you have formal contact with. If you take pictures, or record via audio or video, you should get people’s permission beforehand.
- Respect people’s time. Be on time for meetings and appointments, and don’t take more time than necessary.
- Produce reports regularly, and share your findings with those who are subject to oversight.
- Praise people for their work where appropriate. Don’t blame or criticize. Your findings should make clear where there need to be improvements.
Create an analysis and reporting system. Both the process and the observations that come out of oversight should be recorded for two reasons:
- To show that the organization, institution, or effort is doing its job in keeping track of what goes on.
- To use the information to improve both oversight and the quality of the operation.
To accomplish both these purposes, you’ll need to regularly record and make available the information you get from oversight mechanisms. In addition, you’ll want to develop a process for analyzing that information so that you can spot potential problems or irregularities and correct them.
Catching potential problems with finances is particularly important area for oversight. In the spring of 2012, J.P. Morgan-Chase, one of the largest banks in the U.S., and supposedly the best-managed, announced a loss of over $2 billion that occurred because the company’s top-level management and Board of Directors failed to exercise proper oversight of the bank’s investments. While most non-profit organizations are not likely to lose billions to bad investments, they can nonetheless make financial decisions that lead to limiting services, laying-off staff members, or going out of business entirely. If the right people in the organization get accurate information from proper oversight, they can prevent many of these failures or consequences. That’s why reporting and analysis are necessary.
Determine how you will use oversight to maintain or improve the quality of your work or of the entity or situation you’re overseeing. What areas of the work or organization will you oversee? This question is especially important if you don’t have a lot of resources to put toward oversight. Another important issue is what purpose your oversight will serve. Is it meant to prevent something – harassment or discrimination in the workplace, illegal pollution of the air or waterways, misuse of public funds – or is the purpose to maintain a standard of practice and effectiveness? Is it meant to show – accurately – that you’re practicing “due diligence” (i.e., doing what you’re supposed to be doing) by keeping careful track of all phases of your effort or organization? How will you use the information you get from oversight to analyze your work and change it to improve it?
The answers to these questions will help to determine how to set up an oversight mechanism that meets your needs. If you’re using oversight to prevent illegal or unethical activity, for example, you probably won’t announce when you’re going to be watching. The opposite may be true if part of its goal is to improve practice or the functioning of an organization or system. If your goal is to keep careful track of finances or of another aspect of an organization or agency, then you’ll want to set up procedures to make that as easy as possible to see patterns in income and expenditures.
Evaluate the effectiveness of your oversight mechanism and adjust it as necessary. Oversight itself should be monitored to make sure that it is attending to everything that needs attention. If it’s not, the mechanism, like any other aspect of your work, should be adjusted to make it work well. Checking regularly – at least every few months – to make sure you are getting the information that allows proper oversight can save a great deal of hassle in the long run.
Continue oversight over the long term. As we explained at the beginning, oversight is a long-term commitment. If things are going well, exercising good oversight helps to maintain progress. If oversight is meant to prevent problems, you can bank on problems arising as soon as oversight stops. You need to establish oversight mechanisms that can be sustained indefinitely, and then use them consistently to make sure that all goes well.
We set up oversight mechanisms to keep a watchful eye on things. Most organizations, institutions, and businesses – and some governments – exercise some form of oversight over their own operations to make sure they don’t make financial, legal, ethical, or programmatic mistakes that can threaten their effectiveness or existence. In addition, funders, government agencies, and other entities may exercise oversight over those to which they give resources or for which they are legally responsible. Citizens or citizen organizations may oversee entities that affect their lives or that can harm individuals or the community. For public agencies, having a board of directors may be a legal obligation.
Oversight mechanisms often work best when both those who employ them and those subject to them participate in their development and implementation. They need clarity of purpose and structure, consistent methods, and training where necessary for those who will use them. Technical support can be helpful in establishing analysis and reporting systems, regular monitoring, and using the information to make adjustments.
We encourage the reproduction of this material, but ask that you credit the Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu/.
Draft Legislative Guideline: Basic Elements Regarding Oversight Bodies (downloadable MS Word doc). A general guideline for a legal framework for oversight bodies from the Organization of American States.
Gaining Traction with Enterprise Risk Management by Jim DeLoach. ERM is a business approach to internal oversight mechanisms.
Mechanisms for community engagement, dialogue and outreach from UN Women (UN Entity for Gender Equity and the Empowerment of Women). Includes accounts of community oversight of police responses to domestic violence and violence against women.