In this Q&A blog, Brian Lumsden reflects on his role as governor through sharing his experiences as a public and deputy lead governor at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
What initially motivated you to become a governor?
I was the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust staff side chair and Unison branch secretary so was known for my trade union role. As part of this I often held executives to account. A previous senior executive invited me to consider the governor role. I did not know much about it but what attracted me was it would be publicly elected in terms of democracy. I had long held a view that we need to educate the public on mental health and give them a voice.
How long have you been a governor?
Six years, I appreciate that after this time the council of governors (CoG) needs a refresh. It is important that the people on a CoG reflect society and we have representation from different ethnic backgrounds.
What career/jobs/life experiences have you had that were relevant to the governor role?
I consider myself a progressive trade unionist for members and service users, so it was not just about negotiating terms and conditions. Also being a nurse for 30 years, I saw the governor role as an extension of a caring role.
What do you think is the most important role a governor plays?
To represent my constituency, especially the public who do not really understand what goes on in mental health. A lot of questions governors ask are what the public ask. The majority of the public may never have dealings with mental health services but may well in the future, so it is useful for them to know what to expect.
With a keen interest in maintaining NHS involvement in local schools, I saw our involvement with career evenings as recruiting potential. Our trust strategy, "aiming high changing lives", has governors involved in the debate and seeks to educate people about mental health and recruit kids for the future, especially those from minority backgrounds. It would be great for these students to ask themselves the question "could I be a psychiatrist in the future?’" or indeed any of the hundreds of roles the NHS requires.
What is your view on the importance of training, skills development and wider support for governors?
Describe your personal experience of these and if they helped.
I have attended all the GovernWell courses you offer and a few bespoke ones at our trust as well as a few national governors annual events both live and online. The courses offered have really helped me and fellow governors to really engage with our trust (Care Quality Commission recognised this in their recent inspection at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust). Our CoG has progressed a lot in the last five years. We have very open engagement throughout our organisation. We have progressive leaders, and I take pride in playing a part in recruiting some of these, whether on the nominations committee (for non-executive directors) or on stakeholder panels for executive directors.
The GovernWell accountability course really made it clear as to what a governor is but more importantly what a governor is not. The finance course was also very helpful. It made it easy to focus on what I needed to look at and made the information we get via our board more readable. As a trust we now have bespoke reports for governors, with helpful explanations of what the data means.
All the courses have been enjoyable, taking what we have learned back and using what governors do in other trusts. Most of all meeting up with fellow governors from all sorts of different trusts and from other parts of the country has been most interesting. I particularly enjoyed the role play in the courses, informal chats in breaks and lunchtimes.
It informed me quite early that South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust is a very decent trust to be involved with, very progressive, not holding back as to where we may have been not so good in areas in the past and striving to do their best for the service users from the different communities we represent. Engagement with our board is very good, a real two-way process.
Tell us about any groups/committees/specific roles you have had and how you felt this added value?
I have been involved in every group there is from deputy lead governor and presently joint lead governor. As well as the statutory role to report to NHS England and NHS Improvement if things go wrong, myself and the deputy meet the chair together. A key aspect of this role is to get everyone to contribute – making it friendly, open, sociable, getting people to ask genuine questions, being a critical friend when needed yet supportive. I have strived to be a supportive mentor to new governors. Chairs of groups now write to new governors to invite people to attend. As there is a non-executive director (NED) on all of these, it is a great opportunity to see them in action. I have interviewed a fair number of NEDs, executives and the chair on appointment panels, auditors, head-hunters, all helped by the confidence your courses have given me.
Do you have any examples of any impact you feel you/your CoG have made?
As a collective we have been a big voice with the NEDs. We are seen as a body that does represent our local community. We sit and listen to the board about changes that are being discussed. Our trust has seen the support from governors in posing questions as critical friends that reflect the public voice. The trust is now linking more with communities having recognised that during the pandemic some communities do not have links with mental health and felt isolated. We now have a better process for contacting people.
I used to enjoy visiting wards/community teams. Post COVID-19 I went to online visits that used pre-recorded films, live links with staff groups and a patient comes to every board meeting. These are a great way to hear what service users and staff are saying. Personally, I have learned a lot from service user and carer governors. Now every care plan at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust must have a carer name on them which was influenced by our CoG. I also like to hear what the issues are from our appointed governors from clinical commissioning groups/local councils.
Being part of the trust in a different role in the past brings some realism. I have a good idea of what is a reasonable, or an unreasonable expectation and that is very useful. Colleagues remark I really understood the governor brief – knowing what my role is and have not only stuck to it but have encouraged others too as well. A considerable point being that I know to bring questions back to the NEDs, and to ask assurance-based questions.
What did you enjoy most about being a governor?
I enjoy the collectivism, feeling part of team with my fellow governors, also the NEDs, our membership department and beyond that the NHS. It is nice to meet people who care about others.
Any top tips from your experience/insights for new governors?
Get onto the GovernWell Accountability course as soon as you can, to achieve clarity on your role. Attend a few board meetings, to see what the NEDs are questioning the executives on. Join as many groups as you can.
Governors bring their lived experience to the role, but they must remember that as governors they do not have any powers or control in terms of individual cases or circumstances. Governors do not do the "doing", but they do have an influential voice. It is not always that easy to dip in and out; it is great if a governor can pick at least one working group and attend it as often as they can (in addition to the CoG). Site visits are important to really see what is happening.
Finally there is no such thing as a stupid question. Often, the most basic questions are the most insightful! If you do not understand – or if the trust keeps using NHS-speak – just ask and request that they use plain English!