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View from the street: governance is the word

Scottish Parliament building

Kevin Pringle


Senior partner

Just a few days after nominations had closed for candidates to be the new SNP leader (and therefore Scotland’s next first minister) I used this slot to pose the following questions:

“Are there lessons for other organisations to draw from the current SNP leadership contest? Is there a wider read-across from the world of politics to, say, business?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I argued that the answer is ‘yes’.

A question for today is whether the turmoil the party is going through in the aftermath of this internal election – centring on a police investigation into its finances – contains potential warning signals for other bodies: whether private, public or third sector? Again, I think that the answer is ‘yes’.

To paraphrase the gospel according to St John, chapter one, verse one: in the beginning was the word, and the word was governance.

Among the myriad factors which may (or may not) be involved in what is an organisational crisis for the SNP, the fundamental feature seems to me to be a failure of governance.

The Chartered Governance Institute of the UK and Ireland (which has been around since 1891) defines its core concept thus:

“Governance is a system that provides a framework for managing organisations. It identifies who can make decisions, who has the authority to act on behalf of the organisation and who is accountable for how an organisation and its people behave and perform.

“Governance enables the management team and the board to run organisations legally, ethically, sustainably, and successfully, for the benefit of stakeholders, including shareholders, staff, clients and customers, and for the good of wider society.”

The SNP’s national executive committee (NEC) is analogous to a board, discharging several important roles including oversight and scrutiny.

The fact that the NEC reportedly had no knowledge of crucial management matters – such as the loss of tens of thousands of members, or that that party’s external auditors had resigned last October – speaks to a breakdown of governance.

When I worked for the SNP back in the 1990s, I recall the NEC being comprised of around two dozen members, with its primary focus being on the delivery of core functions: organisation, finance, publicity, etc. I read the other day that its membership had gone up to 42, with more of a stress on representing interest groups and regional voices.

Some years ago, the SNP scrapped its national council (a sort of mini-conference that met quarterly), at which delegates used to give the party’s elected office-bearers a grilling. Interestingly, at last autumn’s gathering, SNP conference voted to reinstate national council.

In my view, part of the story of what is going on just now is that these changes of recent years had a negative impact on governance.

Understandably, the SNP’s political opponents have moved beyond snacking on popcorn as they view events to gorging on schadenfreude.

However, is the governance of all organisations out there as good as it could and should be? Is there a tendency to let these arrangements slip when things are going well – which makes a company, charity or public body more likely to career into crisis come the inevitable downturn, or ‘market correction’.

As they read the news, are any leaders in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK thinking: “There but for the grace of God, go I”?

Once again, I suspect the answer may be ‘yes’.


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