Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?


If we wanted to see bad governance issues at their most raw – in all sectors of society – then maybe this was the week.

First – Corporate governance was shown to be completely awry at Barclays, where Bob Diamond’s testimony showed so clearly that non-execs that should have been applying governance strictures were so out of the picture.

Second – the public sector and education, where Michael Gove in a strange speech at FASNA (Freedom and Autonomy for Schools) said he knew what “good governance” looked like (fascinating to hear a politician talk about good governance!) and criticized many existing school boards as:

A sprawling committee and proliferating sub-committees. Local worthies who see being a governor as a badge of status not a job of work. Discussions that ramble on about peripheral issues, influenced by fads and anecdote, not facts and analysis. A failure to be rigorous about performance. A failure to challenge heads forensically and also, when heads are doing a good job, support them authoritatively.

Third – charities, where governance was held up at an ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) conference to be a critical problem and the split between Chief Execs and Trustees very problematical (nearly 30 are seeking urgent advice from ACEVO on this issue).

Fourth – Government via the astonishing spat between Messrs. Osborne (our Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ed Balls (his shadow) over banking and LIBOR – or worse, their obvious hatred for each other.

Across the nation – Governance in doubt

We clearly have a crisis of governance across the nation and in all sectors. Government, public sector, corporates and Third Sector all exhibit problems where real strains are showing and proper governance is often missing.

Gove’s comments (which show political mannerisms at their worst) can be spread across all areas if we want to.

The role of non-executive directors, trustees, governors or similar is crucial in organisations. Their importance is completely under-estimated in the same way that the importance of backbenchers in Parliament is. This showed so clearly in the Osborne / Balls playground fight this week and showed how dangerous it is when the Executive is a major part of the Legislature (as we have it in the UK) and back-benchers are unable to confront the over-weaning egos of the front-benchers.

The example shown here – of a senior government minister and his shadow in opposition – was appalling but, unfortunately, does shine a light on society. When recession strikes, the worst examples of society come to light.

What’s going wrong?

Much is actually right in sectors of society that organize themselves into such oganisations such as companies, public sector bodies and Third Sector organisations. But, there is a crucial link that is not sufficiently understood and where traditional rules don’t really work anymore – and, where they do work, are rubbished by politicians pursuing a political agenda.

The link is the one between senior operational staff and Boards. It is the crucial link in any organization.

Corporates

The danger here is the risk that Chief Executive Officers who have got where they are because they are good at what they do but also because they act like steamrollers, often force Boards to concede issues with too little scrutiny. Time is of the essence and information hard to take in when you are a Non-Executive Director (NED) maybe at many corporations and spend a few days a year on each.

The law now lays a heavy burden on NED’s but there remain many who want to bring their skills and knowledge and experience to companies. Most are acceptable to the CEO if they have good connections /networks. Beyond this, they are begrudgingly provided with data and fill remuneration and audit committees and the like, fulfilling a role but often not really involved with the central and driving forces behind the business. Government tinkering with the laws has prescribed the areas of involvement that the law requires and where NED’s have to focus. Areas that are fundamental, like strategy, culture, and ethics, are more likely to be left outside.

The danger becomes real in companies like Enron – which imploded under a Ponzi scheme that should have been obvious to all on the Board. It is endangering one of our best-known banks as it did with RBS and Lloyds-TSB.

Name the major scandals in corporates and then describe the efforts of NED’s to make things right – whether in newspapers and phone hacking, oil industry and health and safety, mining and corruption.

Public Sector

I use the example of schools / academies to show the reverse. Michael Gove, in seeking to set up an array of different schools so that the good ones can “emerge”, is in danger of wrecking education and the potential for good that exists in those schools / academies.

Of course, he was speaking at the FASNA – so, was amongst friends. But, his injudicious language threatens to throw out the good with the bad. I am a Chair of Directors / Governors at an excellent Academy and Gove runs the risk (as all “leaders” do) of demoralizing just the people he should be motivating.

In pursuing his political agenda, he shows he is full of ideas but not allied to the skills of a leader. Schools boards / or governing bodies are full of people who (unlike in corporates) are unpaid and fill positions out of a desire to help kids and the staff that run the schools. Gove is at least ten years out of date with his picture of local worthies – it is not just an insult but shows Gove to be stuck in the 1970’s at best.

At schools, the link between Head and Governors / directors can be bad (as it can in any situation) but is often very good. The role of the board as “critical friend” is enshrined in all that is done and the Head (and some of his / her staff) are on the Board as well. This creates a team that motivates each other to work together and develop a school for its students. Where it works (and it usually does to some extent), it provides enthusiasm as well as governance, skills as well as motivation – on both sides, operational and governance.

Of course, Gove has some insights as schools in difficult areas will have trouble finding the skills needed to fill a board. But, this is down to the location and the need to ensure that they are supported within a structure that works. This is a key area and where successful schools can certainly help.

But, Gove should not ridicule the governance structure in schools – it may be the one area that does work!

Third Sector

Now, I work in this sector as a CEO. I have a good Board but having been in the sector for five years or so (my previous 30 were in the corporate one), it is clear that there is a crisis and it is between CEO’s and the Board.

There is a divide that is unnecessary and needs to be fixed. My concern is that it won’t be because the mind-set of third sector participants is that the charity sector is precious and that there needs to be a separation between boards and operations.

The separation is, I am repeatedly told, because of conflicts of interest. These conflicts, if a CEO becomes a Trustee, means, for example, that the roles are somehow confused and that the Chief Exec can no longer properly comment on staff salary issues because of conflicts of interest (see NCVO website).

The Charities Commission is completely confused. Two requests for information on this yielded completely different responses in the last couple of weeks – both suggested a board would need to ensure no conflicts of interest but while one said they would need to approve the appointment and one did not, neither could attest to the specific conflicts that would be in evidence.

What this means is that the separation (which does not happen in Education – and a school is no less precious) is maintained for little reason and the huge benefits – teamwork, joint motivation, openness for example – are lost in the preciousness.

It needs to change and fast.

Governance and Government

Our government shows itself adrift in its response to good governance by the way it shows itself in parliament. Having the Executive commanding the legislature is bad enough but requires a more magisterial quality. Osborne and Balls would not know that if it hit them between the eyes.

It is important that organisations are properly run. They have an enormous impact on society and are a key part of it. It can be argued that civil society has lost its control over organisations as government (our supposed defenders) has clearly shown no tendency to take itself seriously. Osborne and Gove are poor exemplars.

There may be no excuse for the rioters of last summer in England, but the tendency of organisations to show lack of leadership is troublesome and leadership is needed.

The future of Governance

Sectors of society like the three (or maybe four) mentioned above work in silos and come up against each other from time to time. There is much in common and governance issues affect each and all of them.

Governance is the method of governing – it applies to us nationally, internally and within organisations to which most of us belong. Good governance is crucial to the way society works but it is under threat.

The future of society depends on good governance and we now need to unravel the workings of a hundred years of legal doctrine to develop improvements throughout all the sectors of our society.

We need structures that combine strategy and operations, directors / trustees / governors and business / organizational leaders, but where the non-executives are provided with the skills and time to address the concerns that society has.

At the same time, Chief Execs need to be able to explain the key drivers that make (in their view) the organization work and non-execs should be able to investigate for themselves.

Gove wants Ofsted to rigorously assess governors in the way they monitor Heads. Fine (if they had any understanding of what that means and the ability to do it) but who is doing this in corporates – maybe the auditors or some other independent body for any publicly listed company?

Finally, different sectors should not be isolated from each other. NEDs, trustees, governors have a lot in common but all operate to completely separate rules and guidelines. It is time for some common dialogue as civil society (which includes everyone) is getting pretty sick and tired of the mess that organisations are in.

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2 thoughts on “Governance – From Osborne to Diamond – where is it?

  1. Excellent post and I concur both as a Governor for 11 years at various high/primary schools and as a NED/Mentor on several SME boards. However the critical aspect in my view is the lack of guidance as to what Governance actually is, how it should work and genuine case studies as to how it benefits all interested parties.

    • That’s a good point – governance law and guidelines are often derived from those on committees (maybe based on some survey research) but best in class case studies are rarely used – so we hear about the failures and more governance is piled in to remedy on a case by case basis. Governance needs to be revisited.

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