Principals, means and endings

June 20, 1997

In the past few weeks I have been working with John and Miriam Carver, the American gurus of governance in non-profit organisations. Their British audiences are greatly impressed by the simple but powerful message that boards should concentrate on ends and the proscription of means and, generally, leave it to the executive to implement policy decisions.

It is clear that a major issue in reformed public sector organisations is the relationship between boards and their executives. However much the chief executive might be a board member - a trend deplored by some who believe that it is the beginnings of a confusion that can bring both the board and the chief executive to grief - the fact is that the chief executive is an employee and his or her fate is in the hands of the board.

The number of principals who have been removed from office in recent years far outstretches the number in all the years local government had control of further and higher education. No one knows, of course, whether this is a sign of fecklessness on the part of local education authorities or intemperance on the part of boards. Clearly, one of the board's jobs is to monitor its own and the organisation's performance. But sometimes this is tried without a proper performance contract between the board and its chief officer. As the Carvers would have it, this is unreasonable. You should not complain about where you are unless you said where you were going.

Inevitably one's thoughts turn to Natfhe. I suppose a union is the ultimate non-profit organisation. Their boards need to heed the Carver message but they need to heed more besides. In less than ten years Natfhe has "lost" three general secretaries. It is now commonplace to say that it has exploited one of the Tory laws (the compulsory election of general secretaries) of which it was once the staunchest critic.

The recent case of John Akker's removal falls into a different category, however - no ballot here and, apparently, a gagging clause leaving the outside world deeply suspicious about vague references to competence.

This offends a number of principles all at once. It is the opposite of openness so often called for by Natfhe in relation to governing bodies and which they encouraged Nolan to applaud. It fails to see that a general secretary's position is a special one - part employee, part elected officer. It is a position from which the incumbent should only be removed after the most testing procedures and because of a major misconduct fault.

The dangers of this not being so are the usual ones of political prejudice, or worse, the desire to claim the office for oneself. The protection should be akin to the tenure which some university staff once enjoyed - and for the same reason: it allows the incumbent to speak his or her mind - to be free in the academic sense - without fear or favour.

The link with the Carvers' message is clear. An executive officer should never be castigated unless there is a board-agreed performance contract which has been broken. Governing bodies and charities ignore these things at their peril. For unions to do so strikes a blow at the heart of democracy. Who, of stature, could want the job now?

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at City of Bristol College

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