Value for money – the leadership challenges

I attended an event for alumni of the Future Leaders Programme. It was good to see the enthusiasm the programme has engendered amongst the alumni and the fact that so many of them are now leaders in their own right.

I chaired a thinking café session which was taking some of the issues of the day and looking at the leadership challenges. The focus of my session was demonstrating value for money. VFM featured, along with benchmarking and cost of services, in the UCISA Top Concerns for the first time this year so the issue is both real and current for many institutions.

The first challenge to service departments is that different stakeholders value different aspects of the service – so it is important to deliver different messages to those stakeholders to demonstrate how their different needs are being met. There is some conflict, likely to get more acute, between the drive for efficiency and the need to continue to innovate and develop. As funding pressures increase heads of service will have to look at new delivery models that are both more efficient and enhance the service, particularly as the commitment to students is reinforced through student charters. There continues to be pressure to measure performance through key performance indicators (KPIs) or service level agreements but there was concern that these measures often became the focal point for a service operation at a cost to the quality of the service delivered. Further the group observed that it was difficult to get meaningful KPIs – one participant commented that her institution had a performance measure of the number of hours students spent in the library (the view being the more the better) which did not consider what the students actually did whilst they were there. The group took a similar view of benchmarking – too often comparisons are made between services in different universities without considering context or the range of services being delivered.

There is a need to demonstrate impact or services. Some of this will come through qualitative evidence but it will become more critical to services to demonstrate the benefits that any investment has realised, and to demonstrate the benefits of existing services to the key stakeholders. I understand that there has been some work in this area so it might be a matter of teasing it out and refining the model.

One problem facing service heads is that it is rare for a holistic view to be taken across the piece. The difficulty is that the financial climate we find ourselves in encourages the reverse behaviour – individuals will be more inclined to fight their own corner and adopt a protectionist approach. This is as true within service departments as it is across (and beyond) institutions. One participant highlighted that the subject librarians in her institution fought to protect the budgets allocated to their subjects and as a result opportunities to deliver efficiencies within the library were being missed. The pressure is likely to increase as departments want to see how ‘their money’ is spent. The same behaviour is often observed at an institutional level – heads of department think in terms of their budgets and perhaps not about what contribution their budget could make to the institution as a whole. The thinking is short term – longer term thinking needs to be developed. Not ‘is it within budget’ but ‘what benefit will this deliver the institution’.

So what are the leadership challenges service heads face when looking to demonstrate value for money? Certainly one is to promote the cultivation of new thinking amongst service staff. Often those closest to the coal face will identify ways in which improvements can be made – a good leader will seek to develop and reward those ideas. Secondly, there is the need to move others’ thinking on, to encourage the holistic view and think in terms of the benefit to the institution. That, when people are concerned about their jobs and protecting their domains, will be the harder nut to crack.

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