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Is your meeting in the constructive zone?  Check the Meetingometer to find out


While public board and committee meetings have the potential to be both constructive and productive, often this is not the case. Sometimes independent board and committee members feel that nothing ever really changes as a result of meetings. At other times friction and bad tempers create more heat than light. 

Knowing that a meeting is not working is one thing. Changing things is, of course, a different matter.

A helpful first step is articulating what good (and not so good) might look like. That’s where the Meetingometer comes in. 

In the same way as a rev counter helps a driver to set their gears and accelerator in a way that’s just right for the engine, so the Meetingometer does the same for, well, a meeting. Just as a the rev counter shows you when you are in the green zone for your engine, so the Meetingometer tells you when you are in the constructive green zone for a meeting.  

Support and challenge

Unlike a tachometer, the Meetingometer has two green zones because independent member of boards and committees have two roles that they switch between during meetings; support and challenge.  

Support – Independent board and committee members provide advice and new ideas to help executive members develop strategy and policy as well as make decisions and solve organisation challenges. In support mode independent members provide additional capacity, perspectives, knowledge and experience. This is sometimes called the performance role.

Challenge – Independent board and committee members act as watchdogs, monitoring performance and holding executive decision makers to account. In challenge mode independent members bring issues and concerns to the table and ask executives to justify courses of action and consider alternatives. This is sometimes called the conformance or assurance role.

So how will you know which zone you are in?

Meeting zones

There are four meeting zones on the Meetingometer:

  • Amber: Unconstructive support
  • Green: Constructive support
  • Green: Constrictive challenge
  • Red: Destructive challenge

While the most productive meetings will stay in the green constructive zone, those in the amber zone are harmless but have little impact. Those in the red zone, however, will not only lack impact but can cause lasting damage to the organisation and the relationships of those involved. 

But how will we know which zone we are in at any one time? Below are some of things we might notice:

Unconstructive support

  • Agenda items are chosen by executive members without the involvement of independent members
  • Executive members dominate discussions, talk most and make the majority of suggestions
  • Suggestions from executive members typically require yes or no answers, independent member questions are typically for information and clarification
  • Evidence is largely provided by executive members with limited critical assessment by independent members

Constructive support

  • Executive members choose topics and involve independent members in deciding work plans and the purpose of items
  • Independent members talk most and make most of the suggestions at the invitation of executive members
  • New ideas and proposals are developed and refined through discussion 
  • Evidence is provided and critically assessed by both independent and executive members, independent members take time to engage and consult interested parties

Constructive challenge

  • Independent members raise issues of concern for discussion with the cooperation of executive members
  • Executive members talk most in response to questions asked by independent members
  • Executive and independent members work together to develop and refine solutions for issues raised
  • Evidence is provided and critically assessed by both independent and executive members, independent members keep in touch with interested parties 

Destructive challenge

  • Independent members bring items for discussion without engaging or preparing the executive 
  • Independent members make statements, ask long questions require only short answers and interrupt responses 
  • Independent members amplify shortcomings and ignore opportunities to discuss solutions
  • Evidence of failure is provided and amplified by independent members who ignore or downplay evidence of success 

Of course these are things you *might* notice. Every situation is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’.

If making your board or committee meetings more constructive is something you think I might be able to help with, drop me a line to see what I might be able to offer.

 

The four conversations of good public governance


Whether you are developing a strategy, designing a work programme or solving a problem, there are four conversations the you should be having; the public, regulatory, corporate and partnership conversations. 

Good conversations are the cornerstone of good governance.  But, as a councillor, school governor or board member, who should you be talking to?

In this post I briefly set out the four conversations you should be having with suggestions about who should be included, why each conversation matters and how to take them forward.

The four conversations of public governance is a handy rule of thumb that can be applied in many situations.

1.  The public conversation

As a public body you work for the public so you want to be sure you are meeting people’s needs and doing the things they expect.

Broadly speaking you can divide the public conversation into two – those who use your services and citizens of the wider community that you serve.  You are responsible to the former for providing the services they need and accountable to the latter (maybe indirectly) for contributing to the wider public good.

Time spent trying to understand the user perspective is always time well spent. It can provide reassurance that you are doing the right things and, more often than not, unexpected insights.

In practice the public conversation might be with people that have been co-opted onto your committee or board, invited to attend meetings or through additional mechanisms such as a citizens juries or user groups or surveys.

2.  The regulation conversation

Regulators are the bodies that set the rules for how you work and will be responsible for ensuring that you operate in the right way.  Often these bodies will be providing your funding and will have powers they can use if things aren’t working as they should.  It might be that your work is overseen by a central or local government department.  Or a national regulation or inspection body. Or any combination of these.

This conversation is important to provide assurance to those that regulate and for you to understand from them what they expect.  Regulators are also in a good position to sign post to good practice and to major developments that might affect you.

It’s always good to talk to your regulators and inspectors face to face if possible.  An alternative is simply to write to them.  The conversation can also take place through reports – scrutiny reports can highlight issues for regulators just as regulators can do the same for scrutiny.

3.  The corporate conversation

This is the conversation you have with your the executives who lead your organisation and the managers that run your organisation.  They are the agenda setters and the deliverers.

It may be that you are part of a decision making body or in a scrutiny role.  Either way the corporate conversation matters if you are going to understand the strategic direction of your organisation, its policies and how well it is performing.

The corporate conversation should be the easiest to access and face to face meetings should always be possible.  However, it’s always worth talking to others in the organisation, those working at the frontline for example, to expand the conversation and get a fuller picture.

4.  The partnership conversation

No public body can operate in isolation and so it is important to talk to the various bodies that you rely on to get things done.  These include the other public services that you work with, those in the voluntary sector and the private sector.  Don’t forget to talk to those nearby organisations in the same sector as you – whether its neighbouring local councils, nearby schools or other housing associations working in the same locality.

Partners are particularly valuable for the semi independent perspective that they can bring.  They may have practical experience of working with your organisation and can give valuable feedback.  More than this they might be working to support the same people and working towards the same ends.  Finding out how others work and how they see the world can be a great way to think creatively about what you do.

Face to face is always best of course.  But why not go and visit your partners – you learn so much more about people when you visit them on their home turf.

 

Triangulation: A helpful technique for better scrutiny


Triangulation is a key technique for anyone involved in a public scrutiny role.  If you are not familiar with the concept here is a short introduction that I hope you will find helpful.

As a councillor, school governor or member of any other type of public body, you will no doubt have found yourself looking at management and performance reports as part of your scrutiny role. What you are being asked to do is to provide assurance that things are as they should be and to provide ‘challenge’ to those making the decisions.  This is important – not just because you are acting the interests of citizens and service users – but because you want to see things continuously improving.

Sometimes, however, the report being presented by the senior officer, headteacher or chief executive, is the only source of information you have.  Given that they are the expert in their field, have helped produce the report and have all the background information at their fingertips, how then do you seek assurance and challenge? Of course you may trust them implicitly and you no doubt have good reason to do so.  But is this enough?

That’s where triangulation comes in.

Triangulation in the social sciences

In social science triangulation is a technique used to provide greater credibility and confidence for research results. In essence it borrows from the navigational idea that, given the mathematics of triangles, it’s possible to locate something when you view it from two or more points.

Often triangulation refers to the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods in a single piece of research.  This highlights the need to look at more than just the numbers when we are trying to assess something – it’s always good to get a richer picture.

Types of triangulation

Norman Denzin identified four varieties of triangulation; theoretical, data, methodological and investigator.  It is the last three of these that are particularly useful for those involved in scrutiny roles:

Data triangulation: Time comparisons are always useful.  Have you been provided with the historical data for a particular measure?  Similarly have you got comparisons with similar councils, schools, public bodies?  You don’t always need to rely on your own organisation for this data.  You will often find that national data sets are published by government or others.  You should have already had these pointed out to you – if not you should ask.

Methodological triangulation:  Performance reporting is only one way to assess how well a service or project is doing.  Observations of the service in action (perhaps as a ‘mystery customer’), interviews and focus groups with those providing or receiving the service, looking at examples of the paperwork, anonymised case files or, in schools, book scrutiny, are some alternative ways of getting a feel for a service.  Finally, and critically, the conversations you have with citizens and service users are a really valuable source of information.  The stories you year on the street, at the school gate and on the doorstep may be anecdotal but they are a legitimate method of evidence gathering.  At the very least these types of story can start helpful conversations at committee or board meetings.

Investigator triangulation:  It’s always helpful to have more than one set of eyes on a problem.  As a scrutineer you already provide an valuable extra perspective – even if it’s simply asking the right questions.  Other external perspectives can also be useful.  Inspectors and auditors may have produced reports for your particular service or public body.  They may even be willing to come and talk to you.  Other people with a useful perspective include those from national government, professional bodies, community groups, organisations representing service users and academics.  Remember, good governance needs good conversations.

Using triangulation

Denzin uses the term multiple triangulation to describe a mix of all of the above – as a good scrutineer this is what you should be aiming for.  Of course you will need to be selective in what you look at and how you triangulate – better to do a few things well than try and do too much.

While you will know best what works best for you in your circumstances there is always room to experiment with something new.  If it works you can do more of it.  If not then try something else.

It’s also worth talking to your fellow scrutineers in other councils, schools and public bodies to find out what they do.  There is also no reason to stick to your own sector – the triangulation technique is one that works across all aspects of public governance.

And of course the aim here is not to catch people out or undermine them – as well as making a difference for those on the receiving end, good scrutiny should be welcomed by those who are being scrutinised as something that helps them do their job better.  Everybody wins.

 

 

Photo credit here.

It takes two to dance the scrutiny tango


Tango is a great metaphor for good scrutiny.  Whether you are a councillor, a school governor or any other member of a public body, thinking about what tango involves (the dance not the drink of course) will help you take steps towards more effective scrutiny.

Here are the four reasons why:

1.  The good scrutineer takes the lead role

Like all partner dances, scrutiny has a leader and follower.

Good scrutiny happens when the scrutineer sets the terms of engagement; less so when they follow the lead of the cabinet member, head teacher or chief executive of whatever body they are part of.

This means forming a workplan that focusses on the issues that you want to look at and taking control of what gets discussed at your meetings.  The good scrutineer carefully frames each item, by carefully explaining what they want to achieve and then ensures the right questions are asked and the conversation is managed as they want.

At the same time those being scrutinised have to be willing to follow.  To attend when called, to provide the information that’s asked for, in the format required, and to be open and honest in the responses they give.  Most of all the ‘scrutinisee’ has to show respect for scrutiny in what they say and what they do.

2.  Effective scrutiny responds to the music

The tango is not a fully scripted dance.  Instead there is plenty of improvisation.  Partners respond to changes in tone and tempo as they feel they need to.

In the same way scrutiny has to remain flexible and be able to respond to topical events.

Both scrutineer and scrutinisee should feel confident to suggest changes to work programmes, add additional meetings and change agenda items around to reflect, in particular, issues of concern to the public or users of the service they are responsible to.

3.  Good scrutiny keeps to time

The good dancer always keeps to time.  Complex techniques are performed to the beat.

Similarly scrutiny has a music of its own.  It has fit just right in the policy process.  Policy development work has to take place before proposals are fully formed.  Pre-decision scrutiny of the final report has to be given time to consider and provide feed back.  Call-ins of decisions also need a reasonable window to operate in.

Responses to scrutiny must also be timely.  Standards should be set for the scrutinisee to provide answers to written questions and for the responses to reports. All this should be monitored by the scrutineer.

4.  Scrutiny at its best pleases the audience

Scrutiny should promote transparency and accountability.  It should focus on the issues that citizens and those using the service care about.

The public should be welcomed in to watch the dance and should be able to give their feedback.

They should even be able to join in.  But maybe that needs a different metaphor…

 

Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/ow8tLW

 

The International Framework: A great option for your governance review

If you are reviewing the work of your public body and thinking about how your review should be structured, the International Framework is a great option for you to think about.  It sets out seven key principles of good governance and provides plenty of suggestions about what good practice looks like.  

For any public body, change is is the only constant.  As a member of a public body, therefore, you will want to regularly reassure yourself that your governance arrangements are as good as they can be.  You will also want to make regular improvements.  For local councils this type of review is likely to be done by the audit committee.  For other public bodies, such as schools, the work might by done by a sub committee or by the governing body as a whole.

Either way, your governance review needs a structure to ensure that everything that needs to be covered, is covered.

The International Framework

One very robust framework you can use is The International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector (2014).  This was developed jointly by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).

It can be downloaded from the CIPFA website here.

The International Framework builds on previous similar work, draws on a substantial literature review and is informed by an international panel.  You can be confident that it is tried and tested.

While it has been used to assess the governance of bodies as large as the European Union, it is general enough to be employed by any public body down to the smallest parish council or school.

Seven Principles

This framework suggests seven principles of good governance:

  • Behaving with integrity, demonstrating strong commitment to ethical values, and respecting the rule of law
  • Ensuring openness and comprehensive stakeholder engagement
  • Determining outcomes in terms of sustainable economic, social, and environmental benefits
  • Determining the interventions necessary to optimize the achievement of the intended outcomes
  • Developing the entity’s capacity, including the capability of its leadership and the individuals within it
  • Managing risks and performance through robust internal control and strong public financial management
  • Implementing good practices in transparency, reporting, and audit, to deliver effective accountability

As the report suggests:

The Framework should be useful for all those specifically associated with governance— governing body members, senior managers, and those involved in scrutinizing the effectiveness of governance, including internal and external auditors. It also provides a resource for the public to challenge substandard governance in public sector entities.

Using the International Framework

The report breaks down each principle into sub principles (e.g. Behaving with Integrity) and provides a description of what good governance looks like for each including what, as a governing body, you should be doing, and some useful ‘implementation tips’.

You can use the International Framework to review one aspect of your governance arrangements or you can use it to review the whole lot.

The report is, of course, a general guide and your organisation, the context you work in and your governing body are all unique in many ways.  Good governance is not something that can be taken off the shelf.  General principles, no matter how well researched, always have to be adapted to work in a particular setting.

For this reason you should aim to use this framework (or any other one), as a broad guide to help your own exploration of good governance.

You can use the descriptions as benchmarks and ask a series of key questions:

Is this something we want to do?

What aspects of this do we already do well?

How do we get to the next level?

What practical next steps do we want to try?

How will we know if we have been succesful?

Answering questions like these is always done best in a group; ideally with the whole committee or governing body.  This way you can make use of the expertise that everyone has and their experience of what works.

Even better if you can have good conversations with people outside of your committee or governing body to ensure that you get a truly rich picture.

And if you are looking for a nice way to discuss those questions, why not try zero to ten scales – I’ve written about them here.

 

 

Image: Relationships between the Principles for Good Governance in the Public Sector, from The International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector (2014), by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). p.11

What does it mean to be solution focussed?

Solution focussed is something everyone aspires to be, right? After all, who wouldn’t be interested in solutions? It may seem obvious at face value but solution focussed does have a particular meaning and implies a distinctive practice that might not be exactly what you expect. As an approach I think it has lots of potential to help with organisational change and improvement. And, as I describe myself as a solution focussed practitioner, so I think it’s worth setting down something about what it means.

Let me start by saying that I’m not an expert and there are many others who are much more experienced. I’ve been interested in the approach for a couple of years and have experimented with some of the techniques. I’ve also had some training with the excellent BRIEF organisation but I’m very much still learning. Having been involved with a number of different approaches to organisational change over the years, however, this approach feels right to me.

By the way, solution focussed approaches were originally developed by therapists in the US in the 1970s and have many similarities with other asset based approaches such as appreciative inquiry. It will already be familiar to many people working in therapeutic roles in health, education and social services for example. More recently it has been applied to organisational challenges — hence my interest (Mark Mckergow has written a few useful books on this topic).

This, then, is my take on the approach.

Assumptions

Here are some of the ideas that underpin solution focussed practice.

  1. Progress is always possible because organisations are made of human interactions, language and stories. This means that people, through their own behaviours, can influence social change.
  2. The act of describing a preferred future in detail can help to make that future a reality.
  3. Change is something you do — not something you get others to do.
  4. Because your reality is complex, considering the perspetives of others can help you to construct your preferred future.
  5. It’s possible to make progress towards a preferred future without dealing with perceived problems — in fact, focussing on problems can make it harder — at best this wastes time and at worst draws people down into a negative spiral.
  6. As everyone’s context is unique, discovering ‘what works’ to achieve a goal starts with ‘what works already, for me, in my circumstances’. General theories and ‘best practice’ are of limited use.
  7. You are the expert in your own world. Sometimes you might not realise that you have the solutions but the right questions might help you to find them.
  8. Change is continuous and unpredictable — sustainable change, therefore, comes through small steps, feedback and reflection.

Of course people don’t get to choose their circumstances. Social, cultural and organisational contexts can be extremely challenging. Nevertheless, it’s powerful to know that organisations can be changed for the better — sometimes simply by acting out the future that you want to see (this is very similar to the liminal thinking ideas of Dave Gray as Esko Reinikainenpointed out to me yesterday).

In Practice

In practical terms, being solution focussed involves one or more of the following activities.

  1. DECIDING where you want to go. It’s important to establish a positive goal before you set off. This may be obvious and it may not (by the way, an absence of something is not a destination).
  2. DESCRIBING in detail the reality you want to see once your goal has been achived — this will help you to make that preferred future a reality.
  3. NOTICING what’s already working to help you to make progress towards your preferred future — even when things are really bad there are always exceptions that you can build from.
  4. IDENTIFYING small steps to help you achieve your goal. These steps might include doing more of what’s already working, or might be things inspired by what’s worked well for you in the past.
  5. EXPERIMENTING with these small steps and reflecting on what has been better as a result.

This is not an approach that suits every situation and it is not always successful (although proponents will point to evidence that it usually is). It is, however, often helpful for making progress complex situations, particularly when things seem stuck.

Originally posted on Medium

Swiss-Army scrutiny is your flexible friend


Scrutiny, whether in local government or elsewhere, can be about so much more than reviewing decisions.  And yet this narrow view often limits the work that scrutineers do and the way that they do it.  But, with a little imagination, the role can add extra value to councils (and other governing bodies) and be more rewarding for those doing the scrutiny.

Not Just Looking Backwards

As a scrutiny team manager in a local council for many years I often heard scrutiny described as ‘the way we look back and review decisions’.  This is, of course, an important aspect of scrutiny but is far from the only thing that scrutiny does.  Indeed, thinking about scrutiny only in this way leads to a very formal process, often with reports being presented in formal meetings by officers and cabinet members in defensive mode.

Scrutiny (and I often wish we could find a better word) is first and foremost a mechanism for engaging all of those councillors who are not in the Cabinet.  While all of these backbenchers may want to get involved in policy making and supporting service delivery in some way, not all want to get involved in the narrow version of scrutiny.  Different councillors have different things they can offer and different interests they want to pursue.

Swiss Army Scrutiny

Instead of the narrow view, we need to think of scrutiny more like a Swiss Army Knife with a range of different tools to do a range of different tasks.  Indeed, if you look around different councils you will see scrutiny councillors working in many different ways and doing many different things.  For example:

  • Policy development ‘task and finish’ groups that gather evidence and report their recommendations
  • One off public hearings that capture local views around issues of concern
  • Performance monitoring panels that receive and challenge reports about service delivery
  • Question and answer sessions to hold cabinet members and other decision makers to account

For every different task there are different ways of doing things.  Yes, formal committee settings are very important sometimes.  But informal meetings have their place as well.  While the rules (formal and informal) that shape how scrutiny operate differ from council to council, they can always be tested and queried.  And I bet you can always find another council doing something differently if you need an example to help you make your case.

And why be limited to those councillors appointed to scrutiny committees? There is no reason to exclude other councillors if they have something to offer.  Involve them as co-optees or simply informally.

After all, backbench councillors are a valuable resource and local councils are hardly in a position to let their resources go to waste.

So think creatively.

Think about how your council can use Swiss-Army scrutiny.

 

 

 

Here’s to the guardians of the public galaxy


I’m writing in praise of a particular type of public servant.

Unsung heroes who give their time, skills and expertise to guide and support our public services and institutions.  Sometimes they are paid but more often they get only basic expenses.  They don’t seek publicity and rarely get attention in the media. They  do what they do because they want to make a difference.

You might be surprised to learn that in the UK there might be as many as 400,000 of these quiet heroes.

You probably know someone who is one, maybe more than one – there’s a good chance that you’re one yourself.

I’m talking about members of public bodies.

By members of public bodies I mean; school governors; councillors; housing trust members; health board members; higher and further education body members; as well as parliamentarians and the members of the numerous other public bodies needed to ensure everything runs as it should.

It’s telling, I think, that we don’t really have a collective term for all these people given the fundamental similarities of what they do.  ‘Members of public bodies’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and although I’ll use ‘public governors’ I know that doesn’t sound quite right either.  How about MPBs? Or even MOPuBs? Ah well, let me know if you have a better option.

Either way we couldn’t have public services and institutions the same way without them.  As well as bringing skills and experience, members of public bodies bring the voice of the public – asking questions that people would want to ask of managers and decision makers.  It is this accountability to the lay person that goes a long way to making our public services public.

And this is not an easy role.

Whether in education, housing, health or any other field, a constantly changing legal and policy landscape, coupled with new demands for services and unexpected crises means there is rarely time to sit back and relax.

There is also a weight of responsibility on the shoulders of every public governor who know that ‘governance failure’ on their part can lead to poor services or even tragic outcomes for the people that rely on them.

And that’s not to mention the commitment required.  Not everyone wants to spend their winter’s evenings at four-hour governing body meetings or their Sunday mornings working their way though performance reports and management reports.

But they do it all anyway.

And we should be grateful that they do.

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