What is ‘governance as a service’?

Designing a service that adds value: A case study

Richard McLean
13 min readNov 25, 2017

Summary (aka TL:DR)

Governance is often seen as a burden or a series of hurdles to get over.

Sound familiar?

But it needn’t be like that. It can be a service.
To make that happen where you work, start by identifying who uses the service. And then speak to them. Try to understand what they need from governance. Experiment by making changes to remove pain points so that the service better meets their needs. Get their feedback. Learn from failure.

This article is a story of how I did that at the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

I’ve also published a reading list on ‘governance as a service’, which you can take a look at here.


Hi, I’m Richard and I work at the FSA, helping to deliver food we can trust. I am responsible for our project delivery teams and for much of our corporate governance.

I’ve experienced governance from different perspectives over my career and written about why I see governance as a service. This post is a case study about changing corporate governance in the FSA so that the service better meets the needs of the people who use it.

The environment matters

Governance of digital delivery in government has got a bad press

Governance can have a massive impact on delivery. And most stories about governance talk about it having a negative impact:

“The traditional processes for controlling and checking government projects are unsuitable for digital development, which causes frustration on all sides, slows development and undermines accountability.” [1]

However, this post is not about governance of digital delivery, digital development, or digital services. It’s not about governance of an agile project or governance of any project or programme

Others have written about governance of agile projects and digital delivery. Others have done that, and they’ve done it really well.
They’ve highlighted the problem, and they’ve shown ways to make it better.

Whether it’s Mark, the Government Digital Service (GDS), the National Audit Office (NAO), or Jamie at Co-op digital, I think they’ve hit the nail on the head. They have written fantastic, clear things about governance of a digital project/service — and if that’s your bag, I suggest you stop reading this and go read what they’ve written instead. And then go and apply their principles!

But what about governance beyond your project/service?

I’ve found that less has been written about the governance beyond a particular project/service and what can be done to improve that.

This is perhaps particularly surprising for digital services, given the 12th principle of the agile manifesto:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

In short, if you’re trying to deliver something, the environment matters. And in big organisations, corporate governance is a key part of that environment. And that’s what I’m focusing on in this article.

If project governance can slow down delivery, an organisation’s corporate governance — which is often further removed from delivery teams — can be an even bigger blocker, an even higher hurdle to get over.

Corporate governance can seriously slow down delivery. I’ve heard tales from another government department of delivery being held up for months, because the delivery team had to wait that long to get a slot on the agenda for a governance board. That is unacceptable. (To borrow a phrase.)

Many others have highlighted this problem. However, practical suggestions of what to do about it appear to be rare, as are case studies of things people have tried to make things better. And that’s why I decided to write this article.

The case study

I joined the FSA to help deliver our mission: food we can trust. And when I came to manage some of our corporate governance structures, I began to ask how they support our mission. If you want to improve a service, you need to understand what the service is, and who it’s for: who uses it. You can then ask the users about the service they receive.

So what is the service that the FSA’s corporate governance delivers that supports our mission?

What’s the service?

I reckon the service provided by governance boils down to three elements:

  1. Setting direction: What objectives do we want to achieve?
  2. People and money: What people and money are we going to use to achieve those objectives?
  3. Providing assurance: Are we achieving those objectives?

Who is the service for?

I reckon that there are multiple different types of user of this service.
(You could probably sketch out a persona for each. I haven’t done that.)
The key ones are probably:

  • Tax payers
  • Parliament
  • the NAO
  • the FSA Board
  • the Chief Executive (the accounting officer)
  • Directors
  • Senior Responsible Owners
  • Delivery teams

In the FSA, we pledge to put consumers first in everything that we do.

In terms of the FSA’s mission, it is the last group of users listed above— the delivery teams — who deliver value to consumers. So the governance better work for them. They look to the service to provide direction and to provide the necessary people and money to achieve their objectives.

The FSA is spending tax payers’ money. And so at any time it is fair enough for Parliament or the NAO, which scrutinises public spending for Parliament, or the FSA Board, which exists to represent the public interest, to ask the Chief Executive and/or Directors: “how’s it going?”

For the Chief Executive and Directors, governance helps them to answer this question. It provides them with assurance about how money is being spent and whether objectives are being achieved. It also provides them with a mechanism to set direction/objectives and to determine what people and money to use to achieve those objectives.

So, wanting to keep things simple, I decided to focus on those two groups of users.

Where to start?

Corporate governance can seem complex and never ending. Here’s a list of the key governance bodies in the FSA when I started this work:

  • FSA Board
  • FSA Business Committee
  • Audit & Risk Assurance Committee
  • Food Advisory Committees
  • Science Council
  • Executive Management Team
  • Portfolio Board
  • Investment Board
  • People Panel
  • IT Management Board
  • Programme Boards
  • Project Boards

When you’re faced with a complex picture, it can be hard to know where to start. How are you going to chunk down the elephant?

A chunky elephant

For me, there were two answers to the question ‘where to start?’

The first was that certain bits of the FSA’s governance are much harder to change than others; some of it is even set down in statute. I wanted to make progress in quick, small steps, experiment and iterate. So I immediately put out of the scope of my thinking the first five bodies listed above.

The Executive Management Team is there to support the Chief Executive, who appoints its members and determines its terms of reference; and the other boards listed above are set up by the Executive Management Team. So they can all be changed without reference to any external body.

The second answer was: start with user needs. I spoke to users, asked them about their experience, tried to understand what aspects of the service worked well and what bits caused them most pain.

As a Director, I need…

From speaking to the Chief Executive and Directors about their experience of our governance, one consistent piece of user feedback from them was that executive team meetings were not structured in a way that worked for them, and the pattern of these meetings was not working for them either.

In short, a set of ‘hygiene factors’ were getting in the way and not supporting their decision making. So we changed a number of basic things:

  • where the meetings were held
  • when the meetings were held
  • how long the meetings were held for.

Having changed those elements, we reviewed how the changes were working and got feedback. We did monthly retrospectives to review how things were going and made further changes in response to that feedback.

Directors also said that agendas contained a confusing mix of different types of business. So, beyond those simple changes to hygiene factors, we also made changes to the content of the meetings, designing it so the subject matter better matched the meeting structure.

For example, we split the sort of business we would do in short catch-up meetings (which were often held by teleconference or video conference) and the business we would do in longer, off-site meetings (which were face-to-face meetings). As a rule of thumb, longer-term, more strategic issues would be considered off-site, as well sensitive issues covering people and money, where it was helpful to be together; updates and more transactional issues could be taken in a short meeting. Where possible, I grouped items together, creating themed meetings, or at least clusters of themes within a meeting.

Another piece of feedback from Directors about the content of their meetings was that they were not spending enough time on the most important things. We discussed what these were, and I got them on to the agenda. Again, after a few months, we did a retrospective to review whether we had covered the issues/questions they had identified, and whether those things had moved forward. The answer was ‘yes’.

I summarised what I was trying to achieve through these changes in a principle:

Consider the right things at the right time in the right place.

This principle for corporate governance is not that different from one of the principles GDS has for governing a digital service:
Decisions when they’re needed, at the right level”.

As a delivery team leader, I need…

A consistent piece of feedback I got from speaking to delivery leads was that they wanted reactive and decisive governance.

Replace “digital” with “delivery” and this still holds true

Delivery managers sometimes need clear decisions without much notice. A delay to the decision can mean a delay to delivery. So I was very keen to meet this ‘demand’ from delivery leads. However, I only had a limited amount of ‘supply’ — meeting time for the executive management team is limited. And I knew the answer wasn’t more meetings. Yet, given a fixed amount of supply, it’s not possible to be so flexible as to be able to react to every demand. The answer had to be to prioritise.

I knew from speaking to Directors that they wanted to use their meeting time to focus on, support, and drive forward our corporate priorities. As the person who at the time was managing their forward meeting plan, I re-prioritised it so that the timetable aligned with our business plan. By this time, I was managing the exec team’s forward business through Trello, so other business went on a backlog. We were beginning to reach the point where one thing was underpinning the forward plan/timetable: delivery.

If people in the FSA are working on one of our corporate priorities, they get priority with the key corporate governance bodies.

The result was reactive, responsive governance — and feedback from the delivery teams working on our corporate priorities has been really positive. It has increased their ability to escalate, to get direction, to get a decision — and ultimately to deliver.

But what about delivery teams not working on our corporate priorities, the people whose business was sitting on a backlog? One spin off benefit from prioritising the exec team’s time has been that it has increased the number of conversations where we challenge what needs to be considered by the top team. Does that other piece of work really need to be go to them? Can it be considered/approved at a lower level? Can it get the direction and/or the people/money it needs by other means? The idea is to empower others. This is partly a cultural issue and so it takes time — we’re still working on it.

The simplest way to to simplify governance is to strip out layers

So, I had made some progress with removing friction from our corporate governance. But remember that long list of governance bodies? Delivery managers were telling me stories of how many different boards that had to go to. Their pain was all too real to me from my past. Plus time they were having to spend on governance would be better spent on delivery.

The cry from a delivery manager faced with endless governance

What could we do to make it better? Discussing the issue with colleagues, we concluded that the simplest way to to simplify governance is to strip out layers. Here’s are two examples.

The FSA is changing how food businesses are regulated. The programme manager for this change programme — called Regulating Our Future, one of the FSA’s three priorities — was having to report to five different layers of governance:

  • programme board
  • portfolio board
  • executive management team
  • strategic reference group
  • FSA Board

He was spending time repeating himself in front of different governing boards instead of improving the regulatory system for consumers. That was unacceptable.

We decided to abolish the portfolio board. The executive management team took on that function. This removed a layer for all of our change programmes/projects, not just Regulating Our Future.

We decided to make the executive management team the programme board for Regulating Our Future, removing another layer for that programme.

The strategic reference group was primarily a means for giving the Chief Executive and the Chair of the FSA’s non-executive board oversight of the programme and for the programme to be able to escalate and get direction on some strategic questions. Since the executive management team was now the programme board, the Chief Executive was a programme board member. The final step was for the Chair to join the programme board as a non-executive member, and we abolished the strategic reference group.

We reduced our layers of governance for this programme from five to two. We increased efficiency without comprising the effectiveness of any of three elements of the governance service: direction setting, people & money, and assurance. And I can say that with some confidence because the Cabinet Office’s infrastructure and projects authority has recently reviewed the programme and given it the thumbs it.

I once read something about the role of leadership being to ‘set the right objectives, enable, and then get out of the way’. Perhaps the same applies to governance? Whilst that might largely be true, I actually think that over simplifies it, because it ignores the ‘assurance’ aspect of the governance service. But it’s still worth thinking about.

Stripping out layers for recruitment

With these changes taking shape, I was beginning to feel like we were making some decent progress. It was a Friday afternoon, and I’d just heard that one of my team leaders had got approval to recruit to a role we both felt was important to help him deliver what the organisation wanted him to deliver.
I rang him up to celebrate the good news. He pulled me up:

“There’s still one more hurdle to go.”

He explained that there was still one more, final step to go through in the approval process. This really knocked me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was feeling weary, drained by the bureaucracy he was having to go through in order to get the support he needed to do his job more effectively. For him, the governance truly felt like a series of hurdles to get over.

The approval process for recruitment at the time was a nightmare. People often complained about it. It started — of course — with filling out a form. (The form even had a name, albeit a name unrelated to its function: it was called HR37.) The form then got emailed around various people in turn for them to fill in some boxes — a senior manager, a finance business partner, an HR business partner, a director, sometimes it went to the finance director, sometimes it went to the HR director, sometimes it even had to go to the Chief Executive. One of the Directors compared the process to waiting for the puff of smoke when electing a Pope —it was opaque and you never knew how long it would take.

To try and improve things, we set up a ‘People Panel’. I wrote its terms of reference. The panel would bring together key people and so reduce the number of steps in the process, cutting down the number of hurdles. It was a disaster. We failed to simplify things. For one thing, the dreaded HR37 form still existed. Feedback from delivery teams was that the process was no better. And feedback from the people on the people panel was that they felt they didn’t have the right information to take the decisions they were being asked to take. Instead of simplifying things, we had confused them.

One day earlier this year, we took a step back. We were in an exec management team meeting reviewing business plans and budgets. People like the team leader in my example above were given approval for people and money in their business plan and budget. If a role/position was within that plan/budget, why did they need to go through a second approval process to recruit a person to fill that post? In the example above, it was a new position. The team leader had suggested it would benefit us as an organisation. I’d agreed. My Director had agreed. We’d worked the role into our plans, so we knew it was affordable. The plan had been approved. When the time came to recruit, the team leader still wanted to fill the post, my director and I supported him, and he had the money in his budget. So why were we making people like him go through a second approval process ? It wasn’t adding value for any of the three elements of the governance service as I’ve described it. It was slowing down delivery.

We decided to remove some hurdles: we stopped the People Panel, and we abolished the HR37 recruitment process. Rather than tinkering with a process to try and simplify it, the simpler thing is to remove it.

So that’s an example of seeing governance as a service, of trying to shape that service to better meet user needs. I hope it’s helpful.

Want to read more?

I’ve pulled together a reading list on ‘governance as a service’, which you can take a look at here.



Richard McLean

Chief of staff @ElsevierConnect (Academic & Government group). Mainly writing about getting from A to B, teams, & digital product stuff. Personal account.