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Governors' performance goes under the spotlight

In our age of accountability John Graystone considers what qualities a good governor needs

A browse through station bookshops reveals a host of books on being an effective manager with chapters brimming with theories exemplified by successful entrepreneurs' life stories. A search for a book on being an effective board member, however, often proves fruitless.

The situation is similar in further education. A Department of Education and Science project in the run-up to the 1988 Education Reform Act found little research on further education governors. The operation and effectiveness of governing bodies were not seen as issues worthy of comment. Much has changed.

Governing bodies are now looking to how they can assess their own performance. Evidence of this interest came at a recent conference run by the Colleges' Employers' Forum called Assessing the Performance of the Board. It was attended by around 80 chairs of governing bodies, chief executives, governors and clerks and considered board performance. The spectre of Nolan loomed over the proceedings, rather as the Scott report haunted the Government. After all both concern accountability and trust.

The governors' mood has shifted considerably since the summer. The weight of public attention on their performance, concerns about accountability, reductions in funding announced in the Budget, financial problems facing colleges and uncertainty over personal liability have led many to fear the future more now than at any time in the past four years. But at least they can be reassured that Nolan's report will be considerably shorter than 1,800 pages I and contain an executive summary.

The general feeling at the conference was that assessing board performance was a timely idea. Bob Kedney, CEF research director, said that the operation of governing bodies is probably one of the least understood, yet among the most important, of college activities.

The Government view is that the efficiency and effectiveness of public-sector institutions are improved if they are managed and governed as if they were in the private sector. But while public companies are accountable to their shareholders, the lines of accountability are less clear-cut for FE corporations.

Colleges face the dilemma of any company. They need to decide how to balance the interests of their "shareholders" (the funding councils, the community, the taxpayer, the Government) with those of customers (students, parents, employers) - a problem facing those building societies about to convert into banks.

Funding council inspectors in England now take a close interest in the performance of governing bodies. The publication of inspection reports means that much is now in the public domain which was unremarked on beforehand. The criteria used by inspectors in deceptively simple - "governors fulfil their duties effectively and take interest in the institution's activities". As described at the conference, the inspectors will look for governors with a wide range of interests, who have an active role in strategic planning, comply with the instruments and articles of government, set targets and evaluate their own performance.

Presentations by the chairs of governors at Barking and Stoke-on-Trent colleges endorsed the importance of governors concentrating on policies. One has applied the John Carver principle of "policy governance". Governors must be proactive rather than reactive. They set the ends and stay out of the means except to say what is unacceptable.

The relationship between chair and principal is crucial. The chair leads the corporation, the corporation "owns" the college on behalf of the community and sets the college's objectives. These are implemented by managers and staff led by the principal who is appraised by the chair.

At both colleges the pressure of work on governors means that their time needs to be managed effectively and their potential maximised to avoid "governor fatigue". Governors everywhere will feel little sympathy with President Reagan's quote that it's true that hard work never killed anyone, but I figure, why take the chance?

The key to board performance is the extent to which governors add or subtract value to their boards. Do they create board decisions worth more or less than the cost of the inputs - that is members' time; management preparation for meetings?

On long train journeys, I sometimes wonder how interesting it would be to stage a balloon debate between representatives of the funding councils and their inspectors, governors, chief executives, senior and middle managers, teaching and teaching support staff to decide which group could be discarded to save the others.

No doubt governors would underline their key importance by pointing to the contribution made by their breadth of experience and expertise, their knowledge of business and its methods and the fact that they are potential employers of students. They might also add the importance of their support to the chief executive and the college as a "critical and impartial friend" and their independent judgment. They would certainly not wish to be thrown overboard.

Effectiveness also depends on governors being clear about the type of governing body they wish to be. Do they steer rather than row and focus on outcomes rather than inputs? Do they concentrate on the customer and work as a team? Are they market-oriented and entrepreneurial while respecting the needs of the community they serve?

Assessing board performance takes a great deal of time and effort. But, as Bob Kedney pointed out, the question is not so much whether it is worth the effort, rather can governors afford not to do it.

John Graystone is chief executive of the Association for Colleges in the eastern region

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