Governance in times of change: insight-driven decision-making

Agile governance has been vital in the pandemic. Sarah Litchfield, Secretary and General Counsel, and Mat Cooling, Director of Risk and Assurance, at the University of Surrey, explain how data can maximise the efficiency of a governing body.

Governance during the pandemic

We have passed the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown. There is a potential light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a time to look back and reflect. What can our institutions learn from our responses to the pandemic?

At the University of Surrey, one key takeaway is that we can be much more agile than we perhaps gave ourselves credit for, whilst maintaining good levels of governance and decision-making.

This has prompted us to hone in our focus on two areas:

  • Executive level governance structures
  • The role robust data insight plays in informing decision-making and performance management.

We took our thinking to the closing session of the AUA conference just before Easter. We presented to around 100 delegates, outlining our thoughts on the opportunities and challenges going forward.

We continue to flesh out our thinking as we outline below.

Governance structures

We asked ourselves:

  • How can we maximise the effectiveness of an executive board in delivering a strategy?
  • How can executive boards help the leadership team focus on more strategic and risk-based decisions, when they are dominated by largely operational matters?
  • Does a complex network of policies and procedures restrict the ability to present one version of the truth to decision-makers?

We are embarking on a complete overhaul of our policy framework and governance structures. Our aim is to free up 25-35% of Executive Board time to focus on the core mission.

To do this, we have bold plans to rationalise our policies down to around 10 policy statements, only supported by procedures. Within those policies, there will be quantifiable success factors, and a clear reporting route to a reduced number of sub-committees of the Executive Board.

This will enable the Executive Board to focus on other matters, but knowing that key policy metrics are:

  • On track
  • Being monitored at committee-level
  • Being escalated when outside of risk appetite to the full Executive Board.

Insight-driven decision-making

For clarity, it is worth defining what we mean by insight-driven decision-making.

At its simplest, it is the use of data to interpret the environment we operate in. It provides meaningful input into the decision-making process through forecasting, analytics, and so on.

To facilitate this, we are focusing on how we can build on our established performance management information pack, and incorporate key success metrics within our new policy framework. This will provide a dashboard of performance across the University, which will then be monitored. Action will be taken where performance is outside of appetite.

Through doing this, we are increasing transparency of our performance, but also providing key data points and insights to the decision-making process.

Two questions that were raised by delegates at the AUA conference:

1. How far can staff across the institution contribute to developing ‘insight,’ or is this the remit of specialists in the Governance team?

We believe that the responsibility for developing insight sits with every individual across the organisation. The best insight is driven by those who understand the underlying environment and data, and therefore can develop the most robust forecast or simulations.

The Governance team can help train and guide staff, but they are not experts on every aspect of the University. The best way to develop insight is to have each area developed by staff members who know it well.

Governance professionals can add value in the definition of approach, templates, and frameworks to help support parts of the organisation producing the reporting.

2. Can data help respond to ‘live issues’ and areas of concern, like donations and other ethical issues?

Definitely. In two ways.

Firstly, data provides visualisations to help decision-makers understand the landscape.

As an example, we are utilising visualisation tools such as PowerBI to create dashboards. These can be linked to live data sources. As such, when the data changes, so can the visualisations. This can give decision-makers real time insight into the position of the organisation.

Secondly, data can help identify any potential trends or ethical concerns, such as donations visualised by geography, sector, or even person, which are updated live, based on donations data.

Often, given the nature of the sector, the University may have multiple connections with individual states or entities. When looked at in isolation, it feels appropriate.

But when we aggregate all of our commercial contacts and donors, we can see the true extent of our engagement with individuals, organisations, or countries. We can then identify if this leads to any concerns from an ethics or over-reliance perspective.

Moving forward

Our journey is continuing in this area.

We are taking the first steps towards a more streamlined, coherent, and co-ordinated policy framework over the coming months.

Sarah Litchfield is Secretary and General Counsel, and Mat Cooling is Director of Risk and Assurance, at the University of Surrey.