Governance – When it goes pear shaped

Dominic Cummings, the former senior strategy advisor to the then newly elected Prime Minster Boris Johnson was at the heart of government when the Covid 19 crisis folded and was privy to all that went on.

After being forced to leave government, he appeared before the MPs committee on 26 May 2021 to answer questions on how government responded to the Covid19 crisis, this was a fascinating and a shocking viewing.

 

This reminded me of issues I regularly experience in charity and business organisations.

 

I have never been a fan of the politics of Dominic Cummings but his fascinating insight and views on how the government machine worked really hit a nerve. He had many golden nuggets to share for those that understand the practicality of good governance in large and complex organisations. In crisis the cracks are all laid bare. 

 

In this blog, I will share some of these golden nuggets:

 

 1. The role of corporate planning

 

Yes, its important to have crisis management plans and risk registers. These should be regularly tested. A government can have all that in place at department level, however this is still not effective unless there is a central plan that brings it all together. 

 

In my line of work, often I see a silo working culture in large organisations. In this culture, staff in each department and division become inward looking and start to tick the box for their own sakes. They do not realise that when the organisation hits a crisis, it is not the department plans that matter anymore – the plan has to make sense in the context of corporate priorities and defense, led by the central leadership.

 

In my line of work, often I see a silo working culture in large organisations.

 

Organisations that often have an effective corporate strategy and plan backed by a corporate risk register are the ones that ensure work done at individual and department level is most effective for the wider organisation, its stakeholders and its beneficiaries.

 

There is no point of having a star performing individual or department, if it does not save the overall organisation from sinking.

 

There is no point of having a star performing individual or department, if it does not save the overall organisation from sinking.

 

2. Decision making in crisis

 

Cummings in his appearance talked about finger pointing of key roles and government departments at each other. He spoke about some great work and talent at junior levels that were being ignored. All this accumulated to a culture of chaos, as the government formulated a response to the pandemic.

 

In normal times, large and complex organisations can have conflicting priorities and policies between departments and official positions. However, in a crisis these can become a hurdle and hold back when there is culture of silo working.

 

The one strong leader needs to become the pilot taking over the reins while switching off the auto pilot.

 

It is at these times; the one strong leader needs to become the pilot taking over the reins while switching off the auto pilot. Those that have the titles may no longer be suitable anymore – others may need to be upgraded to speed up the decision making. Policies that governed the organisation in normal times, may now need to be flexed, removing red tape to create breathing space. All this is needed to respond to the crisis and to save the ship.

 

 

Consultation for decision making is good but it is a means to achieve a greater good not the end goal. Consultation should be meaningful in a crisis, not just for sake of it to please individual egos.

 

The leader and the wider executive may be appointed through a robust and fair recruitment process – these are for normal times. When the crisis hits the fan, the leader is expected to rise to the challenge taking difficult decisions and making most of the tools at his / her disposal. There is no time for hiding behind or blaming others.

 

An important consideration for those that appoint leaders and CEOs is this question: “Does this leader have the ability to steer the ship in a crisis”. Such focus can have an effect of changing the selection criteria and the value of the leader to the organisation.

 

The leader must be a leader for all times, not just for the happy times.

 

3. Data does not float in air

 

Having worked on data quality audits in the NHS and local government, I recognise the mechanism by which data is generated and checked. Data is not born from thin air, it requires fit for purpose systems, people and infrastructure.

 

The use of data for normal times can be different from its use in abnormal times. To make the data available in abnormal times, it is not always easy to train people, install systems and infrastructure at short notice – these changes require time and investment.

 

In my experience, organisations that invest in their IT and data infrastructure in good times are the ones that have readily available information to take the right decisions at the right time in a crisis as well as normal times.

 

Often organisation neglect the value of investing for the bad times and end up “stop” and “searching” for solutions during a crisis – this is the worst time for investing.

 

Often organisation neglect the value of investing for the bad times and end up “stop” and “searching” for solutions during a crisis – this is the worst time for investing.

 

A good leader needs to be able to “see” to navigate through the storm, using the tools at his / her disposal. This is only possible with advance planning and investing.

 

4. Be careful on who your advisor is

 

A strong leader will attract strong advisors. The leader will respect them and will know how and when to use their advice, maxmising their value to the whole organisation. Whereas weak leaders either disrespect their advisors and their advise or are led and controlled by them.

 

When the going gets tough, these advisors are not the ones taking responsibility for the decisions their leaders take. The buck will always stop with the leader. If a leader has to rely on the advisors to look good then the foundations are on shaky grounds.

 

If a leader has to rely on the advisors to look good then the foundations are on shaky grounds.

 

Leadership is about the grand plan, vision and strategy – the role of the advisor is to fill in the gaps on how this is best achieved.

 

If the leader lacks what it takes to lead than you can’t blame the advisor when it goes all wrong and the carpet is pulled under the feet when it was most needed.

 

Many lessons are to be learnt from this controversial advisor of a controversial Prime Minister during one of the most controversial times in British history.

 

Author: Nasir Rafiq is a widely experienced Fellow Chartered Accountant (ICAEW) and a Charity Financial Governance Expert.

He is the Managing Partner of Dua Governance, a Charity Governance specialist accountancy firm.

Nasir has held many senior finance positions within the UK charity sector and continues to advise many charities on financial governance matters.

Email: info@duagovernance.com