Governance for the long term

14 October 2022

How do leaders reconcile short-term urgency and long-term importance? Principal consultant and proud northerner Aidan Rave finds inspiration in the London Underground

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” But these words of wisdom offer scant comfort to resource-pressed leaders trying to strike that elusive balance between short- and long-term priorities.

Lessons from the Tube

Despite what you might read in some of the press, living in the north of England has plenty going for it. You can still find houses that, by comparison with London and the south east, are a veritable bargain. You can still get your kids into the local school with relative ease, and you can still visit the local and buy a round for your friends without the inconvenience of having to remortgage.

Of course, the advantages of living in the hinterland of the global powerhouse that is London are well documented: excellent quality food from every corner of the globe, unparalleled access to culture and the arts and of course a system of public transport that, despite its challenges, is still the envy of the world.

You pays your money, you takes your choice, but in terms of the Tube, I have to say on behalf of the north: Londoners, you don’t know you’re born!

Keeping the show on the rails

As a fairly frequent user of the London Underground, it never ceases to amaze me how such an immense operation manages to operate with only occasional systemic failures. So effective is the Tube, that even if one line is out of action, there is generally a simple workaround to get to your destination. Sure, you might be more tightly packed into the alternative train than you would want, but generally you will still be able to get to your destination without too much bother. The Tube operates from very early until very late – indeed, around the clock on some lines – serving an astonishing 300 million passenger journeys every year.

Just consider that for a moment: 300 million pairs of feet hammering down on platforms every year, trains continuously thundering through a largely Victorian infrastructure, all happening in an endless cycle of operations. How on earth do you maintain such a heavily used system when it is in near-constant use? How do you distinguish between short, medium and longer-term priorities? How do you keep the show on the rails when the show is constantly on?

Of course, balancing the demands of short- and long-term priorities is not a challenge unique to transport. Indeed, one of the defining governance challenges of our time is facing public sector leaders, particularly in the health and care sectors, who are having to cope with massive short-term pressures of demand while at the same time trying to keep a clear view of the medium- to long-term horizon.

The leaders charged with nurturing the early development of integrated care systems (ICSs) over the last few months will be more than familiar with this conundrum. They have been effectively handed a set of four broad priorities, a to-do list as long as your arm, a fixed budget with little or no room for negotiation and an overarching challenge to integrate into local systems so that needs in places as diverse as Blackpool, Basildon and Bath are catered for. The pressure is immense as the stakes could not be higher; get things wrong and the impact on people’s wellbeing, health and life chances will be stark.

Long-term benefits

In the midst of this dash to meet those immediate challenges, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the true potential of systems working is actually realised over the long-term. In essence, as we grow and develop increasingly robust, diverse and productive networks across our communities, so the potential of getting upstream of longitudinal challenges comes closer to our ability to implement the preventative actions and interventions that just might give us the chance of avoiding problems further into the future.

Aligning data, real-time and specific intelligence with informed multi-sector interventions will equip systems with much greater opportunities to get ahead of problems before they mature into more entrenched and intractable challenges. Many systems are already demonstrating this potential with investment programmes and schemes that are delivering not only a glimpse of what might be possible in the future but also results today.

The challenge for them – and for all systems – is providing enough resource headroom to ensure that such longer-term planning is not lost in the maelstrom of immediate pressures that currently dominate so much managerial bandwidth.

As with so many challenges facing public service leaders, there are no easy answers to this. The short-term pressures are going to be confronting systems for the foreseeable future and the longer-term challenges, if left unaddressed, will continue to build a legacy that will not only result in poorer health outcomes for communities, but also present ever-more wicked challenges for those who inherit the challenge of public service leadership in years to come.

Brilliant basics

Just like maintaining the Tube while keeping it fully operational, maintain long-term safeguards of a functioning system, regardless of immediate pressures, and the ability to deal with short-term issues while maintaining the network will become not easy but easier.

In the absence of simple solutions, it’s always worth falling back on getting the basics right. Good governance, strong and sustainable networks underpinned by genuinely balanced and productive relationships, effective management supported by clear and brave political leadership and always finding the best value for money – not just for now, but for the long-term.

At the Good Governance Institute, we’re passionate about supporting organisations to develop and grow the capacity and expertise to ensure that these basics are maintained by upholding the principles of good governance and supporting our partners to keep the show on the road, while creating the precious space to plan for the challenges to come.

We’d love to talk to you about governance.

Meet the author: Aidan Rave

Principal Consultant

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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