Sunday, March 18, 2007

FE Governance - does size matter?

On yesterday's The Bottom Line on Radio 4 (available on Listen Again for one week), there was a discussion about the optimal size of project teams. One of the business people suggested that six or seven was the best size with the maximum practical size being - with complexity of communication increasing exponentially above that.

That wasn't a revolutionary or unique insight - there has been plenty of research on the size of teams - but it struck me that many governance "teams" are a lot bigger in public services.

In social housing the National Housing Federation is encouraging small boards - urging housing associations to avoid having boards more than 12 members. Things are different in Further Education colleges, where governing bodies are typically about 18 members - normally coming from particular constituencies.

Big boards and governing bodies have to constantly confront the risk of degenerating into talking shops. Sir Walter Puckey could have been talking about FE governing bodies when he commented:

Too many board meetings display verbosity among a few and almost complete silence from the rest.

Its not the fault of FE colleges. The Instrument and Articles constituting governing bodies, creates a one-size-fits-almost-all template with limited flexibility around the edges. (There have been cases of FE colleges seeking even larger governing bodies than required by the Instrument and Articles - often after mergers where there was felt to be a need for 11 a side or whatever on the new governing body.)

While the Department for Education and Skills can reasonably have some rules on how governing bodies are constituted, why can't FE colleges be allowed to try new approaches and constitutions that reflect their specific requirements, culture, history, etc?

If "super-colleges" emerge with large turnovers and varied activities, there will be an even stronger case for allowing colleges to try forms of governance more akin to plcs with small boards - perhaps including executive directors. (This form of governance may emerge happen by the backdoor if the private sector take over the activities of failing colleges through contestability.)

There is certainly a need for the voice of customers, staff, local authorities, local civic society,
etc. But would this be better served through some kind of stakeholder council influencing strategy and holding directors to account? This is the model developed with NHS Foundation Trusts.

Even if such a model isn't considered appropriate for any FE colleges, it would be good see smaller and more effective boards and governing bodies.

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