Why I see governance as a service

A personal story

Richard McLean
4 min readNov 12, 2017


Managing, reporting to, or sitting on governance bodies has been a big part of my working life since 2001 — project/programme boards, parliamentary committees, steering groups, management boards.

I’ve spent years trying to deliver projects/programmes/portfolios, including delivering digital services and data services.

And I’ve also spent a lot of time studying or thinking about governance, from studying corporate governance as part of my CIMA professional management accountancy qualifications to examining the role of corporate governance in banking failures and the financial crisis for the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

For people trying to deliver products and services, governance can feel like a drag, a set of hurdles to get over, or avoided. And it’s not surprising. After all, governance can delay — or even stop — delivery.

But it needn’t be like that.

I now see governance as a service. It is a service that can deliver value to the people who use it. To get to a place where governance is seen as a service, you need to identify the service and the users, and you need to make sure the service reflects their needs through designing it that way.

The challenge is to design governance so that the service is so good, people choose to use it.

The fact that governance can get in the way of delivery isn’t some abstract, theoretical problem for me. There are a couple of experiences that explain why I’ve come to see governance as a service: a previous role I had, and my role now.

The pain of reporting to multiple governance boards

I used to be a delivery manager. I led a programme that was set up to improve technology services for users and save tax payers £millions. Partly through introducing cloud computing, my team were giving people access to their services anytime, anywhere, on any device, at the same time as delivering a 23% budget cut.

You’d think people would be happy. And want me to get on with it.
But I had to report to 8 governance boards.

I had my programme board, four management boards across three organisations, the programme board of another programme which was connected to the programme I was managing, and two committees. That’s a lot of meetings. A lot of reports. A lot time not delivering the things I was passionate about delivering. A lot of time spent on governance rather than on making the services as good as they could be for the people who were going to use them.

I took a lot of flak. I became what Meri Williams called a bullshit umbrella, going out and taking the flak, protecting my team so that they could get on and deliver.

Being a bullshit umbrella

I also became a story teller. I told the story of what the team were delivering. But surely that wasn’t what I being paid for? Surely that wasn’t why I was given the job? I was there to deliver a programme of work. That was how it should have worked. Instead, I was out telling stories. So I recruited an extra delivery manager…

The FSA exists to deliver food we can trust

I currently work at the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Parliament set up the FSA with the Food Standards Act (1999). In doing so, Parliament gave the FSA the objectives of protecting public health from risks relating to food and protecting the interests of consumers in relation to food. (The Act also specifies that the FSA is “a body corporate”. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the FSA has corporate governance.)

The FSA is a small government department, regulating the food industry. We’re approximately 1100 people, and we expect to spend about £126m in 2017/18. Now, while from one perspective that’s a lot of people and lots a money, it’s important to understand the context we’re operating in. The sector we’re regulating is massive: it employed 3.4 million people in Britain in Q1 2017. UK consumers spent £203bn on food, drink, and catering in 2016.[1]

For me, these numbers illustrate why in the FSA we can’t afford to have governance that slows down delivery. We’re a small organisation with a big mission, and if we set up a project or programme to deliver a thing, we can’t afford to put a load of governance hurdles in its way.

Corporate governance matters to the FSA because we’re accountable to Parliament, and ultimately to tax payers, and because we’re ambitious but we’re also small, so where we focus our limited resources matters and time/money/effort wasted on governance that does not add value could have been spent helping keep consumers safe.

In another post, I’ll write up a case study of changing some of the corporate governance in the FSA so that it better met the needs of its users.



Richard McLean

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