Confessions of a process junkie
For several months if not years now I have found myself feeling frustrated and disconcerted about something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was a feeling that kept cropping up in relation to ostensibly quite disparate stimuli. There was the institution that wanted advice on how to choreograph a governors’ meeting to get the outcome management wanted. There were the providers being forced by the Home Office to take action against students because the Home Office considered that their students had cheated in their English language tests, but who weren’t really sure how best to do it. There was the university that had suspended a student without a hearing but couldn’t quite explain why, other than something to do with its reputation. There was the college merger consultation run after the decision to merge had been taken. And then there was the institution wanting to know what to do with a valued donor who wanted to veto the appointment of a particular member of staff to “his” Chair, because he didn’t like the applicant’s politics.
I couldn’t see the connection at first, but then gradually it dawned on me: all of them were in their own way a failure of (or in some cases a deliberate disregard for) due process. By this I mean the mechanisms and safeguards by which decisions are reached on a fair, balanced and transparent basis so that everyone with a legitimate interest in the eventual outcome has confidence in it, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.
Due process is one of those things that lawyers prize, and almost everyone else sees as tedious or unnecessary bureaucracy. That’s often because the process in question is badly designed and ineffective. (The solution to this is of course to improve the process, not disregard it). But sometimes people ignore due process because the thing they want to do isn’t achievable in a fair, balanced and transparent way and that’s when the alarm bells ring and I am overcome with the malaise I describe above.
Because what does due process do? Broadly it:
• Improves the quality of decision making by requiring those who make the decisions to explain them so that those affected by them can understand why they have been made.
• Balances competing interests so that the decision is proportionate and takes into account all relevant considerations.
• Sets out how the decision will be reached and how anyone with an interest in it can participate.
• Ensures that decisions are only made for the legitimate purposes for which the power to make them was given and not for some other, ulterior purpose.
• Allows everyone to understand in advance when and in what circumstances decisions that affect their interests may be made.
• Protects the institution from challenge.
So, taking the examples above, if the decision governors need to make is a prudent and defensible one, present all the facts, deal with their concerns and help them to reach it. If students have cheated, present the evidence, allow them to respond and reach a balanced judgment. It’s very unlikely that the conduct of a single student could damage the reputation of a university, but if you think there is reason to believe so, ensure that the underlying facts are thoroughly scrutinised and challenged to make sure you’re right, before taking proportionate and reasonable action to protect it. If you have a duty to consult, be open-minded and willing to listen and explain. Make sure that your donors understand up front and throughout the values of the institution and what they can and can’t influence.
At the very least, you’ll spend far less on legal fees but I can also guarantee your decisions will be better as a result.
Partner and Head of Education
T: 0121 214 0332