The importance of governing well

This piece was written in March 2019, ahead of our Governance conference, by Helen White, Chair of the Regulatory Board for Wales, and Chief Executive of Chester Voluntary Action. 

“As a mum of two boys, chair of a housing association, chair of the Regulatory Board for Wales, and Chief Executive of a Charity I have developed the ability to read board papers, write board papers, iron school uniforms and cook fish fingers at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, not a day goes by when I don’t relish the challenge and feel privileged to do the work I do.

I’ve learnt so much over the past 17 years, but in some ways doing ‘governance’ has never felt so difficult and overwhelming.

It’s great to hear the Governance conference will have more delegates than ever this year. This sends a clear message to me that the sector recognises there is some great stuff happening but still a lot to learn and improve upon.

From a governance perspective, in some ways, the direction in which different housing associations have chosen to diversify is irrelevant. The real challenge is to make sure organisational governance keeps pace. The skills at board level need to reflect the ambition and aspirations of the organisation. Attracting the right skills to a board is more important than ever.

Boards need to be brave, avoid group think and encourage challenge, disagreement and, dare I say it, some dissent. Big decisions deserve big debate. At a time when the pressure on increasing supply has never been greater, brave decision-making isn’t always about doing more. Sometimes a decision to do less can feel much harder to defend.

Many boards are quite rightly having to grapple with the difficult issue of balancing investment in much-needed new homes against the need to ensure appropriate investment in existing homes and communities. What impact will the findings of the Affordable Housing Review have on the strategic ambitions of the Board?

To make sure the board can focus on the big strategic issues, you need real assurance about operational performance. Having the right systems in place is vital when you have a board of around 12 and anything from 1,000 to 15,000 properties.

Are we really listening to tenants? Enabling and supporting tenants to effectively influence the work you do is easy to talk about, but difficult to do well. I hope our thematic review on putting tenants at the heart of what housing associations do will support this.

The Regulatory Framework in Wales differs from that in England in that it explicitly places tenants at the heart of the regulatory process. But it is the role of the housing association board, not the regulator, to develop and embed a culture of putting tenants and communities at the heart of decision-making. Strategies on this are well and good, but we all know culture eats strategy for breakfast!

And with Brexit less than a month away, difficult decisions are being taken amid a backdrop of ongoing economic uncertainty, while the external operating environment continues to be complex and feels fragile.

Believe me, I know better than most how hard it is to get governance right. I can’t promise you’ll get all the answers at the conference but I can promise that together, we can make sure we are asking the right questions and delivering the best possible outcomes for tenants in Wales.”

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