A reassuring sense check of good governance

Church of England Pensions Board

“We didn’t want someone who would walk in, put everyone's back up on day one and come up with something that was never going to be practical, but equally we wanted someone who would be challenging to us and, if he did find something majorly wrong, would say so. In that respect David was a good fit. His report gave us the reassurance we were hoping for.”

Lee Marshall, Chief of Staff, Church of England Pensions Board


The Church of England Pensions Board provides retirement services, mostly pensions, to around 40,000 people, over half of whom are members of the clergy, the others being diocesan, cathedral and others who work for Church-related organisations, including the Board’s own staff. As well as managing pensions for around 750 employers, it provides retirement housing to those members of the clergy who haven’t been able to make provision.

The Pensions Board had always carried out regular effectiveness reviews, largely through self-assessment, and in 2016-17 carried out a major governance review. Due to various personnel changes and the pandemic, however, there had been a long gap since the last board effectiveness appraisal, during which time several governance changes had been made, including going to the General Synod (the Church of England’s Parliament), a statutory requirement, to reduce the size of the Board from 20 to 12 members.

Having done all this work, the Board asked Action Planning to review the effectiveness of its current structure for reassurance.

The request was for a Board effectiveness review, the brief being in essence, “We’d like a sense check. We don’t think there’s anything drastically wrong – unless you tell us there is. And please do.”

David reviewed documents, interviewed each of the Trustees individually, and attended a couple of their meetings. As expected, he found that the Board was in very effective shape, with marginal scope for improvement. However, he did pick out certain aspects that required some focus, such as the risk of losing the diverse balance of the Board as people reach the end of their term.

Succession planning was another point David picked up on, given that the leadership team is now of “a certain age” and there is a risk of losing key expertise. He also offered some advice on hybrid working.

Chief of Staff Lee Marshall sums up David’s report as giving “a sense of security and solid foundation – the reassurance that, having looked at you, having spoken to your trustees, there is nothing wrong here.”

There was, indeed, nothing major to be fixed. It is a highly effective board, very well governed, and it can press forward, confident in the knowledge that it isn’t missing anything important.

Consultant’s insight:
​​​​​​​As a consultant, you always want to add value. When carrying out a review, you really want to find scope for significant improvement, so that your recommendations bring real benefits to the client. And when the brief says “there’s probably nothing wrong here…” that rings alarm bells and sets antennae twitching!

However, in the case of the Church of England Pensions Board that statement was more or less borne out, and although our report did contain 28 recommendations, these were all relatively minor.

This was one of those occasions where a Board asked for a Board effectiveness review because it knew this was the right thing to do, and while the ‘value added’ that we provided wasn’t earth-shattering, nonetheless it was valuable: reassurance that all is well, recognition that the Board and Executive team are doing an excellent job in complex circumstances, and a few minor pointers as to how what is already very good could – by a small margin – become even better.

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