Monday, October 27, 2008

Football charity’s £440k own goal

This month the Charity Commission have published the results of their inquiry report into the Footballers’ Further Education and Vocational Training Society. An office manager at the training charity made unauthorised cash withdrawals of £444,400 over more than a decade.

The inquiry report should perhaps be required reading for all trustees (and certainly for audit committee members). It concluded:

It is important that trustees should work closely with their senior employees to ensure that their charities’ governance frameworks and internal control systems remain fit for purpose, especially during periods of rapid growth.

The report went on:

The Commission does not expect trustees personally to check every management decision taken, or every financial transaction, but trustees should ensure that there are procedures in place which allow them to monitor performance effectively and, especially, to identify discrepancies and system failures as soon as possible after they occur. It should not be assumed that every lapse will be spotted and put right by the annual audit.

Its worth noting that a civil action was brought by the charity against its external auditor although this was eventually settled out of court.

The economic crisis and affordable housing: Three million new homes please

Shelter has a petition on the No 10 website asking Gordon Brown to publicly restate his commitment to three million new homes by 2020 and to prioritise social rented housing. I would urge everyone to sign up. It takes less than a couple of minutes.

Boards – what are they good for? (Can they avoid the embrace of managers?)

Across the public sector, the need for effective boards remains on the agenda (and is arguably rising up that agenda). But can boards ever meet the expectations heaped upon them?

The Harvard Law School Corporate Governance blog makes depressing reading this month. Jonathan R. Macey summarises some arguments from his forthcoming book on Corporate Governance, Promises Made, Promises Broken.

It seems that Macey thinks that promises are not very likely to be kept due to board capture:

Public choice, social psychology, and historical observation all suggest that boards can be counted on to be only as honest and effective as the managers they are supposed to supervise. The problem with boards is their unique susceptibility to capture by the managers they are supposed to monitor. The problem of capture is so pervasive and acute that almost no board, not even those that appear highly qualified, independent, and professional, can be relied upon entirely.

He points to boards being sucked in and committing themselves to the strategies, plans and managers that they have chosen.

Is there any way out? Perhaps.Macey notes:

as board tenure lengthens, it becomes increasingly less likely that boards will remain independent of the managers they are charged with monitoring.

Arguably the opposite is true. Board renewal is not only about new blood – it’s about new brooms too. (Of course there remains the imbalance of information between executives and non-executives. That assymetry is trickier to fix.)

I hope the National Housing Federation reflects that in strengthening the commitment to a nine year cap on board membership across the housing association sector.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Beware successful Chief Executives?

I often have a look at the Random Rantings of Freek Vermeulen - an Associate Professor of Strategic & International Management at the London Business School. This month he has warned that some of top performing chief execs should be avoided like the plague.

The logic is:

Bad managers are those people who just don’t get it. They accept worse average returns for higher risks. And this is where it gets tricky. Because if they accept very high risks, in spite of lower average returns, every once in a while one of these morons will actually hit the jack-pot…

That is, if we take the top 1 percent – and only this 1 percent – of top performers, they’re likely to be those people who don’t get it at all… but just got incredibly lucky!

He goes on:

The same is true – as Stanford’s Professor Jim March asserted – for CEOs. The ones that are the eye-catching top-performers are likely the ones who just don’t get it. The dangerous thing is that they are also the ones with the absolute highest return in their business. Therefore we naively believe that they “do get it” and, in fact, are quite brilliant. Moreover, that’s what they start to believe as well… (“I win again; I must be brilliant…!”). Yet, they got lucky once, the might get lucky twice, or three times (at which point we start to notice them) but eventually their luck will turn (the names of Bernard Tapie, Jeff Skilling, Cees van der Hoeven and Conrad Black come to mind).

He concludes warning against “top performers” in any business or situation which involves risk:
The one coming out on top is likely to be a moron, who just got lucky.

I suspects the theory has the ring of truth for many people. (I also think that there are all sorts of interesting issues around management, leadership and success. How often do successful managers demonstrate themselves to be poor leaders when they are asked to lead people rather than manage things? How often is the asset of charisma associated with a dangerous risk-loving attitude?)

Nevertheless even if the theory makes sense, I think care should be taken in applying it to assessing, appraising and rewarding performance!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Universities and mergers – is less more?

This week the new Higher Education minister (and the man tipped to be Britain's first black Prime Minister) David Lammy asked universities: "Do you have the right number of institutions? In the commercial sector there would have to be many mergers over the next few decades – far more than we have seen in higher education. Could more be done to encourage that among universities?"

I am a merger skeptic - too often mergers are driven by efforts to build empires or enhance salaries - or even worse, driven by bureaucratic convenience. Whatever the motives, too often the benefits are exaggerated and the costs overlooked (ask the bosses at RBS who out-bid Barclays for ABN-AMRO).

Nevertheless, some mergers can make sense as a response to changing times and challenging economics. While consolidation of existing institutions may take place, is there a case for increasing the supply-side? That actual or threatened competition from potential entrants can surely raise quality is increasingly recognised in the pre-18 education marketplace.

Audit Commission, value-for-money and Iceland

There will be red faces at the Audit Commission with the revelation in today’s Financial Times that it has £10million invested in Icelandic banks. Apparently they were investing in April 2008 – staff at the Commission obviously don't read the Observer which was making noises about Icelandic banks “feeling the chill” the previous month!

As the Commission joins councils, charities and universities with accounts frozen in the Icelandic meltdown, the rest of us in the public and third sectors have had a big reminder of the importance of good risk management and treasury management.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Non-customers having a role in governance: is that news?

Midland Heart have issued an intriguing press release: "For the first time, a housing association will include non-residents alongside existing customers on a unique decision-making body, giving them powers to shape the delivery of services."

For some time (to be precise, forever) almost all housing association boards have had a non-resident majority. Board members, like myself, have never had the social housing resident experience – and that can be a problem. Having accountants, bankers, lawyers, etc on boards is great in terms of professional experience, skills and “competences” but do some of us bring other baggage and lack some of the most relevant experience?

I don't think that Midland Heart’s press release is actually talking about boards. As always the devil is in the detail. I presume that Midland Heart are creating arrangements for accountability and scrutiny of service delivery - perhaps based on the Chartered Institute of Housing's model. If so, it all makes sense and should be welcomed.

The challenge of meaningful customer involvement remains for all public services.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A history of the housing market collapse

With the credit crunch and the related problems in the housing market, financial services and the rest of the economy causing pain for families and difficulties across the private, public and third sectors, there is interesting historical background on the Housepricefacts website.

There are some cringe-worthy quotes such as Gordon Brown’s from 1997:

I will not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the future.