Ensuring the right guard

November 14, 1997

Keith Scribbins argues that college governors should equip themselves with a little philosophy

Since the incorporation of our colleges and universities college governance has had the odd wobble or two. There are some who believe that the grand experiment of handing over our public services to the custodianship of unelected men and women has been an experiment that has failed.

If there was a philosophy which inspired this experiment it was the belief that our public services would be improved in their effectiveness and efficiency if they were run like private sector operations - with a simulated, if not actual, profit motive. In the wake of Nolan the call has been for less enterprise and more probity.

Aside from reconciling their roles as guardians of enterprise and probity, governors struggle under a number of handicaps. First, they are not accountable to constituents or shareholders and unlike trustees proper they are not accountable to those in whose interest the trust has been established.

Second, their duties range from the grandly general to the narrowly specific. In between there is the primary duty to ensure the financial health of the college and to avoid insolvency. This mix of strategic and day-to-day concerns is fertile territory for role conflict between governors and their senior staff, particularly the chief executive.

Third, the absence of direct accountability creates a passion for inspection and evaluation. Governors' work is inspected by the funding councils' inspectors, the audit inspectors and the various committees of inquiry. Finally, they are expected to engage in regular self-evaluation and to devise instruments to enable this to happen.

Governance provides opportunities for "representatives" from the economic and social community to enter a new kind of civics in which appointed, as opposed to elected, individuals can contribute to the good of society. They are the stakeholders of post-Thatcher, Blairite Britain.

Their primary challenge is to engage in the widening of participation and achievement of national training targets. Governors have an opportunity to contribute directly to the revival of the nation's economic prosperity. Done properly this work can make a difference providing the limited time that busy men and women can devote to the task is time used effectively. If governors try to be pseudo-managers they will fail, on time grounds alone.

Inevitably there are threats. The economic resource available to governors is absurdly low. Revenue funding is inadequate and capital funding non-existent. The way in which Whitehall can move the goal posts is, to say the least, frustrating. And the ambiguity now posed of having to reduce staff costs but without access to pension regulations that facilitate early retirement takes some tolerating. But the biggest threat of all is that for many governing bodies their colleges' life spans are likely to be short. The need for rationalisation, mergers and the development of fewer, larger institutions is pressing. Before the turn of the century many governors will preside over the winding up of the college they have been appointed to serve.

If governors can tolerate the ambiguities and find a way through the changing social scene, they cannot only make a difference and add value to people's lives but they can also achieve standards for those in other parts of the new civics - new standards for hospitals, charities and the new public sector generally. But to do this three conditions need to be met.

Governors must: l Concentrate on doing the right things and know their role in the doing lUse precious time effectively l Give leadership.

The so-called policy governance model enables governors to achieve these conditions. It has been developed over the past 20 years by John and Miriam Carver, who commenced work in North America but who have recently developed their model in the European context.

The model enables governing boards to concentrate on strategic leadership. To do this a board needs four sorts of policies: ends, executive limitations, governance process and board-staff linkage. Under the Carver model good governance involves prescribing ends at the broadest levels and proscribing means with as little interference in the work of chief executives and their staff as possible. This revolutionises how boards spend their time. Board meetings become different, the board-staff relationship changes, many board committees become unnecessary. Most of the board's time should be spent on specifying what difference the organisation will make.

The general reaction in Europe has been that the Carvers are outlining a philosophy which enables governors to concentrate on a particular role within the time that busy people can make available and in a manner which concentrates on the strategic leadership of the college or university.

This is not to say that the application of Carverism to the British context is easy. Governors have a number of statutory functions which need to be acquitted and often these force them to concentrate on means rather than ends, and to meddle. But governors should not be the passive agents of the funding councils or, for that matter, the secretary of state, and after five years of operation there is certainly a need to review the instruments and articles of government to make them more realistic. They should aim to facilitate the role of governors as community stakeholders in the education service - they should shape ends and proscribe acceptable means.

Some feel that this is a slim role for governors and gives too much power to chief executives. This is a short-sighted view for surely we pay chief executives to achieve our ends providing they do so in a diligent, honest and efficient way. We also require them to guard resources well and to value their staff as their instruments of achieving our goals.

Whether or not it is the policy governance model we choose, governance in Britain is likely to be the more certain and less prone to the scandals of the past if it has some central philosophy which answers that eternal philosophical puzzle of why are we here and what should we do.

Keith Scribbins is a consultant in education management.

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