Reflections on public sector board governance in challenging times from

Caroline Oliver


During March 2010 I had the privilege of speaking to audiences in two key parts of the UK public sector – further education and healthcare.   I have also read the latest thinking their boards are being offered by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) 1 and NHS Leadership Council 2 respectively, and been able to tune into the concerns of other participants through speaking with them and listening to fellow presenters.


From this experience, as well as that I have gained from working as a board governance consultant with Further Education Colleges and NHS organisations, I feel that I have some sense of the sheer scale of change that is coming their way. 


For the foreseeable future it seems boards in both sectors need to anticipate presiding over organisations that will:


·          suffer massive income reductions

·         face steep increases in need for their services

·         have to adjust to yet more regulatory change

·         need to be ever more responsive to ever more prescriptive funder requirements

Unfortunately, whilst the official guidance offered to boards in both sectors has definitely improved in recent years, it still does not clearly distinguish the role of the board nor fully address the issue of how boards can deal with what they already have on their plates, let alone the yet greater demands coming their way. 


One of my main concerns about this is that, unless boards clearly assume their rightful level of control, executives on the one hand, and regulators and funders on the other, will effectively cut out the-board-as-middleman and deal direct.  And what concerns me about that is that I believe a healthy public sector ultimately depends on boards’ ability to provide leadership - a subject to which I will shortly return.


If only we could be honest and admit that, as currently organised, boards with even the most dedicated, brilliant and perspicacious members haven’t got a hope of staying on top of it all.  I say “if only” because we can only address problems that we are willing to admit exist, and only if we are willing to admit that our traditional approach to board work is inadequate will we be open to looking at solutions that would enable boards to exercise true leadership. 


In this article I want to suggest that your board takes some time to really stand back from its day to day concerns and consider the extent to which its current approach is fit for the purpose of organisational leadership. In times such as these clarity is key to survival and finding clarity amongst so much complexity cannot be done from the middle of the fray.  Your board’s time and collective thinking power brought to bear on the big long-term picture are perhaps among your organisation’s most precious assets right now.  Assets that you will need to use wisely to steer your organisation through the rough waters ahead.


In considering whether your current approach is fit for the purpose of organisational leadership I suggest asking yourselves questions such as:


·       Are all our board’s expectations clear regarding patient outcomes?


·       Are all our board’s other expectations clear regarding the running of the organisation to create those outcomes? 


·       Is our board in a position to keep regular track of the extent to which all its expectations are being met? 


·       Is it clear which decisions must come to our board and which the Executive Director is free to make? 


·       Is it clear what information our board requires and for what purpose? 


·       Does our board’s annual agenda have time built in for continuing education and reflection on the appropriateness of our expectations?

To answer these questions fully, be prepared to challenge your current practices.  Schemes of delegation do not establish a comprehensive set of monitored performance expectations.  They only set out what the board has reserved to itself and what authority the chief executive has in some areas.  And, please note that approving documents and constructively challenging piles of data in the absence of pre-stated board criteria doesn’t fit the bill either.  Having even the most highly qualified individual board members and committees working really hard at checking up on as many things as possible is not the same as truly being in control of it all.      


Right now of course, far from being urged to work on making sure that they are setting and monitoring a comprehensive set of expectations, board members are often being urged to get further into the day to day realities of what is happening – to get into the classrooms and onto the wards (in the NHS this activity is sometimes dubbed - the “walkround”).   And it is certainly true that direct inspection by boards of particular concerns is likely to get executive attention.  Boards get what they focus on – we all do.  However, again, without pre-stated criteria, direct inspection is far from systematic control.  And, in any case, direct inspection needs to be used extremely judiciously given the value of board time, the vast range of possible things the board could directly inspect and the potential for unproductive distortion of priorities, role confusion and dilution of clear accountability.


Also note that in the absence of your own – board-stated - criteria, the criteria that will dominate you and your executive are those that come from your regulators and funders and thus you will have relegated your role to one of watch-dog on their behalf.  Maybe that feels like your reality anyway, maybe that even feels safer than taking up your own leadership but I want you to consider the possibility that those who will succeed in the times ahead will be those who are willing to take some ownership of their own destiny rather than being merely victims of others’ prescriptions for them.  


Which brings me back to my belief that a healthy public sector ultimately depends on boards’ ability to provide leadership.  It seems to me that if only boards were willing to identify and stand up for those in whose interests they believe they ultimately govern – which for a public sector organisation has got to be some version of the national and, or, local public – it might give them the courage to develop and pursue their own long-term vision rather than merely comply with demands thrust upon them by those whose mandates come from the current perspectives of central government policy and regulation.  And if only public sector boards were clearly setting out their own long-term visions they might stand a far better chance of fulfilling what we - the public-as-owners - want. 


The authors of the formerly mentioned LSIS report1 identify three models of governance.  The first is the ‘business’ model which is about maximising performance and success. The second is about “compliance and accountability to multiple agencies such as LSC and Ofsted (with performance criteria often expressed as targets)”. The third, “which characterises local authority education and social services, is governance for representation and democracy”.


Surely there is no real choice here.  Public sector boards have to maximise performance and success, and comply with the requirements of regulatory and funding agencies, and be concerned with representation and democracy.  Indeed, Jo Matthew one of the co-authors of the LSC report has been quoted as saying3 ‘There is a clear need for colleges to broaden the focus beyond the compliance model if they are to put more emphasis on localism and ‘place-shaping’ as the government wishes.” Central government may ultimately be publicly accountable but even national politicians recognise that we need our public institutions to be far more dynamically democratic than our national electoral system allows.  


In a further example, this time from the NHS, Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham, speaking in September 2009, said4:  


“Top-down reform was right for its time, but it can only go so far. It led to a feeling that reform was imposed; done to people, rather than with them. ... Going from good to great needs a new, more unifying approach.  It means inspiring people with the goal … and building a much bigger sense of ownership of the reform journey needed to get us there.” 


And turning to the Conservatives’ policy as set out on their website: “Instead of bureaucratic accountability there will be democratic accountability. We will decentralise power ….”.   Liberal Democrats’ policy similarly states “We will give local people democratic control over their local health services”.

If only boards were courageous enough to take the lead, wise enough to know that leading requires new governance methodologies, and independent enough to seek  authority from meaningful year round public engagement rather than only from central government directives.  Maybe then we could build National Health Service organisations that could truly say that they are always firmly focused on best possible outcomes for patients.

© Caroline Oliver 2010



Caroline Oliver can be contacted by email at: coliver@goodtogovern.com


Visit her website at carolineoliver.co.uk


1A Review of Governance and Strategic Leadership in English Further Education The future challenges facing governance and strategic leadership in FE Allan Schofield (ed,) Jo Matthews, Simon Shaw LSIS November 2009

2The Healthy NHS Board Principles for Good Governance, NHS National Leadership Council, February 2010


4 Kings Fund, 17 September 2009,