Confirming suppositions with an innovative review technique

Cambridge University Assistants’ Contributory Pension Scheme

“David was very good. He’s extremely experienced and he responded to my way of thinking very constructively. He came across as the experienced operator, which he is.”

Howard Jacobs, Chair, CUACPS

The Cambridge University Assistants' Contributory Pension Scheme (CUACPS) was established by the University of Cambridge in 1923 to provide retirement benefits for Assistant Staff employed by the University and to provide benefits for certain staff employed by employers associated with the University.

CUACPS is in a strong financial position and things generally work smoothly, although there are some inherent challenges from being closely associated with an organisation as complex as the University. Although much had been done to modernise the operations, more needed to be done in this respect.

CUACPS is governed by a Board of nine Directors, who are appointed through a variety of routes. One or two of the newer Directors had asked about the governance arrangements, prompting them to seek an independent facilitator to carry out a governance review. which has prompted this governance review. One of the Trustees, who is also on the Board of the Church of England Pensions Fund, recommended Action Planning.

CUACPS asked us to carry out a “light touch” governance and board effectiveness review. David Saint carried out the work.

David began with a headline document review, to get an understanding of the context and operations of CUACPS. He then arranged Zoom calls to interview each of the non-executive directors, as well as the Head of Group Pensions, the Deputy Head of Pensions and the Pensions Administration Manager.

Finally, David sat in on a Board meeting to observe proceedings before preparing his report. Delivery of the report involved facilitating a workshop, on site and in person, to run through the findings, discuss the recommendations and develop an action plan for any changes that might seem appropriate.

A few days prior to this he presented the report to Board Chair Howard Jacobs, who suggested that it might be interesting to somehow capture the Trustees’ initial reactions to each of the recommendations in a straw poll, so David and Howard created a slide showing all the recommendations and a score sheet for each Trustee to rate each recommendation ‘accept’, ‘reject' or ‘consider further’.

On the day, David presented an overview of the report (which had been circulated in advance) and then put up the slide of recommendations. He handed out the straw poll scoring sheets and asked the Trustees to tick ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ by each one as appropriate. While they then got on with other business, David added up the scores and put the totals on the Recommendations slide, which he then shared with the Board.

The straw poll revealed strong support for most of the recommendations. Howard said, “I thought it was excellent. It provided real focus to the meeting. The Trustees liked the process and they liked the result. We’ve ended up grading the recommendations and people are now cracking on doing various things.

“While nothing unforeseen came out of it, it was very pleasing to have our thoughts so strongly confirmed because it did give the basis to further action.”

Consultant’s insight
When things are working well, it can be difficult to add real value as a consultant. Some organisations do governance reviews because things are in a bit of a mess and need sorting out; other organisations commission governance reviews simply because they know it is the right thing to do.

CUACPS falls firmly into the latter category; but, having said that, there isn’t an organisation on this planet that can’t improve in some way, so in the case of CUACPS it was a case of listening carefully, exploring a few issues and then making recommendations for a number of measures that could improve efficiency, or effectiveness.

The result was a fairly long list of 22 (mostly relatively minor) improvements that might be made. Following Howard’s inspired idea of doing an instant straw poll on each recommendation, totting up the results felt a bit like having my homework marked! Happily I seem to have got a good mark, as most of the proposal were warmly accepted. This exercise was a great fast-track way of getting to a plan of action arising from the report.

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