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Being a public Governor – Tom Lake

A picture of Tom Lake

Any Berkshire resident over 16 can become a member of the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (Berkshire Healthcare for short). Any member can become a public Governor. Stand for election and with luck the members will choose you.

About me

I stood when a friend in Reading retired, when there had been a big NHS reorganisation, and I felt that I wanted to help defend the core values of the NHS. I said so in my election statement. The members who vote in Reading seemed to agree because I was elected, and I have been elected twice since, which takes me to my third 3-year term – and that is the permitted limit.

Becoming a Governor

When you get elected as a member of the Council of Governors of the Trust – what comes next? The governors are a welcoming and friendly bunch. The 19 elected governors come with different experiences, as citizens, patients, carers. Some are members of political parties, some of none, but altogether there is plenty of goodwill and mutual support. The variety of experience is very important in giving us many angles, and we want to enlarge it even more. So, if you have a ‘unique selling point’, don’t forget to mention it in your election statement.

Beside the elected governors, there are four governors representing staff, clinical and non-clinical, and they give us valuable insight into staff concerns. There are six councillors appointed by their local authority, with the local authorities responsible for so many services vital for residents, and hosting their local Health and Wellbeing Board, the Council of Governors has access to a great resource of experience, public engagement and know-how.

There are three governors representing three important independent Berkshire organisations with which Berkshire Healthcare works: Reading University, the Red Cross and the charity Young People With Dementia. So the Council of Governors has a great deal of knowledge and experience to draw on.

What happens after being elected

Soon after being elected you will be able to attend an induction with other new governors. You learn that Berkshire Healthcare provides its many services across Berkshire from over 100 sites, and you may wonder how you will ever get a grasp of it. I found out that the staff are united by a common spirit of care and commitment in all the many specialisms and roles that they take on. Many are experts and leaders in their fields. There is a strong nursing ethic. Understanding the common threads really helps.

During induction you learn how you fit in to the organisation, how it is structured, and what you have to do. You find that you play a part in the governance of the trust. You learn our Company Secretary and the support staff are there to help you.

You also learn that Berkshire Healthcare has been judged an ‘Outstanding’ trust by the Care Quality Commission – you have chosen a good place to make your contribution. 

Read more about our Outstanding CQC rating (opens new browser tab)

How it works

Every NHS trust is run by its board of directors. Some directors are full-time executives, like Berkshire Healthcare’s Chief Executive, Julian Emms or Director of Nursing and Therapies, Debbie Fulton. Others are part-time non-executive directors, who bring independent and outside views to the trust board, like trust chair Martin Earwicker, or newest non-exec Rajiv Gatha, who is global Vice President for Finance at multi-national company Cisco Systems. The responsibility for the trust devolves onto each of them. The executives have to run the trust. The independent non-executives have to hold them to account. Your job as a public governor is to bring the public voice into the organisation at the top level, and particularly to ensure that the independent non-executive board directors are doing their job of holding the executive directors to account.  

Our Council of Governors can hire and fire the Chair of the Board (who also chairs our Council) and help select the other non-executive Directors. We also advise on major decisions and have certain other functions, like selecting the auditors. Thankfully, we have never come into serious conflict with our Chair or with the trust executive.

Our Trust is rated ‘Outstanding’ in the ‘Well-led’ category, so you won’t be surprised to hear that relations with the board of directors are friendly and straightforward. The whole Council of Governors gets to meet board members on eight occasions in the year – four times at our formal, and public, Council meetings and four times at less formal internal meetings, where the emphasis is on discussion with the non-executive directors. You will be able to put your questions and hear about developments. You get to see that becoming an outstanding trust has involved enormous attention to detail and engaging the whole staff in the effort of being as good as they can be.

When I was first elected, I was quite surprised that we did get quite a lot of the valuable time and attention of the Chief Executive, Julian Emms and of our Chair, currently Martin Earwicker, and other board members. We try our best to use it productively. On the whole I have been enormously impressed with the capability of our board members and not surprised that the trust has achieved its outstanding rating.

Our non-executive directors are people who have had or are having successful careers and want to play a part in an organisation that supports a whole community – like Berkshire Healthcare. I have seen that they display strong commitment to their work as a contribution to society and I have often seen that their interest in the particular work of the trust in mental and community health means a lot to them; it is not just another job.

Getting to know your way round

When you have met your fellow governors and the board members, you are at base camp. Berkshire Healthcare is an organisation with about 100 different services on 100 different sites and over 4,000 employees.

At the Council meetings you see reports of the performance of the trust in statistics and graphs, but to do your governor’s job you need to appreciate it all in people terms. To get a good idea of what it all means it helps to visit the hospitals and services. Happily, it is possible to visit services and they are often generously welcoming to governors’ visits. In practice, service visits are organised by the most import sub-committee of Council – the governors’ Quality Assurance group.

Visiting different services around Berkshire Healthcare, you soon realise how many of the trust’s staff are specialists and how much initiative their jobs demand. Visit a mental health ward and you realise that the Health Care Assistants’ relationships with the patients are vital to the work of the ward. Talk to a ward manager, and you find they are energetic, active, real-time problem solvers and people managers. You soon discover that there are many specialised nursing services in the community. So the thousands of staff represent all kinds of specialised and special roles, rewarding and demanding a lot of the staff. Some have achieved national prominence for innovation in their special area. You learn that the 4,000 staff are not an anonymous crowd, but an array of striving individuals.

When I visit a service, I try to understand what its own understanding of its role is, whether it has the resources to do well, and what the concerns of the staff might be. I ask about the changes it is undergoing. One of the questions I try to remember to ask is whether they have any message for the Board – to pass on at the next opportunity. Staff are helpful and supportive as they are strongly engaged in their work, and proud of the care they give.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been and continues a test for the staff. Trust management has had to bring in a new level of resourcing to support staff wellbeing through traumatic experiences. We can be proud of how well they have come through.

Read more about Life on the Front Lines with COVID-19 (opens new browser tab)

We public governors hope that we have been a good sounding board for the directors, kept the non-executives sharp in holding the executive to account and that we have brought varied community views into the trust.

I will soon reach the end of my last term and someone else will have to step up. How about you?

Find out more

Find out more about our Governors (opens new browser tab)

Read more about becoming a Governor (opens new browser tab)

Find out about our 2022 Governor elections (opens new browser tab)