Our Sector: Elected officers- strategic problem or strategic solution?

There has begun to be some movement within students’ unions and the wider charitable sector around the need for strategic plans. In other sectors they are indeed beginning to lose their tyrannical grip, being replaced with risk registers and beanbags. This of course is nothing new as management fads wax and wane as they always have- but the trouble is that students’ unions had only just got to grips with them, well the staff had anyway.

One of the big problems for students’ unions has always been the three (or five but never four) year strategy running alongside one (or two but never three) year officer terms. Unions that have managed to find ways round this, usually in one of three ways – either taking a mixture of strategic priorities and officer manifesto pledges to create a kind of hybrid one year plan; or by having a plan that is pitched at a high enough level to allow officers to do whatever they wanted (as it would still fit in with the plan’s objectives) whilst the staff get on with delivering the strategy; or just putting the strategy on the shelf and forgetting about it. Whichever method used unions still have an uphill battle to get an officer team excited about the strategy unless they were the year that was writing one.

At its heart a strategy is just a set of agreed actions aligned to achieve a major objective. But even in this bright new future of one year strategies we live in objectives are still desirable and actions are still needed, we just need them right now.

Having one-year strategies may well be the future (although I suspect that even one year will soon be regarded as too long a period) and indeed it is the way that we are considering going at our union. On first glance this may well seem ideal for engaging elected officers to ‘get on board the strategy bus’ as every year they will be writing their own strategic plan for their year and so will the next year’s intake and so on. But despite this there will still be officers not willing to be on the bus and there will still be objectives that our unions would like to achieve that will take far longer than one year to complete.

So why do we try and get officers to buy into strategies? Well firstly they are there, nicely printed out for them but most importantly they are the ‘right thing to do’ if you are to be taken seriously as an organisation. What is true is that they are useful as an indicator of whether an organisation is being effectively managed, certainly a union without a strategy has probably not thought that much about what it is there for or whether it is using its resources efficiently and that is important for elected leaders to know – after all they are in charge. What is also true is that trustee boards like them because that is how they get to run the place, through setting the strategic direction – after all they are in charge – and officers do sit on trustee boards so they need to understand what they are and make sure they are being carried out.

But sabbatical officers are the mayflies of the trustee world; surely the role of an officer is about short-term wins for students? Very few officers passionately fight to get the first few steps completed of a long-term five-year plan, and why should they?

For me I think the answer must be that we need both; one-year strategies set by the officers and a longer-term strategy for the organisation. A key part of this organisational strategy should also involve sabbatical officers but not in its delivery but as part of the strategic objectives.

Nearly all unions will have a strategic aim to increase student participation in its service provision and engagement within its democratic processes – so how can having elected students acting as trustees and representatives be bettered as a KPI of that? Outside organisations are always trying to include its members or customers at the heart of their operations – they should be looking at students’ unions in wonder. Somehow, as a movement, we have achieved something quite special – a group of elected students at the heart of the organisation, in full control of its resources trying to effect positive change for their fellow students. This is something quite incredible.

What if a union’s overarching organisational strategy was to improve elected officer effectiveness through improving processes, systems and people? Its key HR objective could then be supporting staff in performing their part in that key role. KPIs for this could include ensuring X number of elected officer manifesto pledges or campaigns are successfully carried out each year. There could then exist within the annual strategy KPIs for specific campaign objectives such as 24 hr Library, work marked within two days, cheaper bus travel, etc. If these are not achieve in one year they could get picked up by the next year’s officers, or not, whatever that year’s officers felt or research demonstrated what best served the membership’s needs at the time.

But should SU organisational strategies focus purely on creating effective student leadership, wouldn’t the rest of the organisation go to rack and ruin? Don’t we need a good strategy with all major stakeholders working together to achieve great outcomes?

Jim Collins in his seminal book Good To Great highlights that there is absolutely no evidence that good-to-great companies invested any more time and energy in strategy development and long-term planning than comparison companies. In short strategy is not what makes a company great. The key to these good-to-great companies, according to Collins, was that they founded their strategies on deep understanding along three key dimensions – what he called the Three Circles. Where these three circles intersect is what these companies used to guide their activities. These three circles are:
1. What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally importantly, what you cannot be the best in the world at)
2. What drives your economic engine (or cash flow)Three-Circles
3. What you are deeply passionate about

If you find something that meets all these three criteria and create a strategy around that then you can achieve greatness.

So what would be in the three circles for students’ unions? Well firstly at what can we be the best in the world? A: being membership led. I can’t think of any other organisations in the world that put as much resources and effort into ensuring that they are membership led as students’ unions. Co-operatives have but now they are trying to find ways to move away from that governance model. As a movement we have a huge amount of knowledge and expertise in this area and we continuously improve and develop our systems and processes to this end. And if we are honest with ourselves there is little else that a Union does that another organisation or sector somewhere doesn’t do better. And elected officers are a key part of that process, they are at the pinnacle of the engagement ladder, they are chosen from the membership to lead the organisation.

What drives our cash flow? A: elected officers. Really? Yes, really. Think about it, nearly all of Students’ Union charitable funding comes from block grants. And how are these block grants calculated? Well there are all sorts of ways but in the end it is usually down to the whim of an institution’s senior management. And what do they use to decide this figure? In my experience it is down to the strength of the relationship between the sabbaticals and the University senior management. Sabbaticals are our sales force, they are our client managers, if they look good we look good. You can produce all the impact reports and KPIs you like but the truth is that the most contact a University senior manager has with a students’ union is via a sabbatical officer. A good sabbatical officer can be the difference between feast and famine, even when NSS scores are going south. Union’s that invest large amounts in creating effective officers have large block grants. This is not coincidence although it might not have been by design.

And what are we deeply passionate about? A: Student participation and engagement. That is why we are so good at it and why we can be the best in the world. By creating a strategy that moves all of a students’ union’s resource and effort into being a truly student run organisation, with officers at the top, running it in an effective and accountable fashion then student participation and engagement can only go up. If students can see elected students making a real difference then they will want to be a part of that. If students want to be a part of it then satisfaction will rise and block grants will follow.

Nice idea but would it all work in practice? Three years ago we put this into action as part of our three year plan (yes three years, it was cool back then). It was not the only piece of our strategy but it was one of our key intended impacts. The aim was to increase student engagement in the running of the Union through higher voter turnouts, greater involvement of our student staff, a much greater use of volunteers running our services, graduate internship employment and of course better trained and supported officers with much higher profiles. All of this took time and funding, it included the retraining staff and a cultural shift that is still on-going. A lot of the changes came from officers themselves and much as from staff. We set ourselves ambitious targets as part of the overall strategy: 25 per cent of students volunteering within the Union, a block grant increase of 25 per cent, 85 per cent of students agreeing we made a positive difference and 50 per cent of student voting in an election or referendum. Three years on and how did we do? Well the results are in: 10 per cent of students volunteer within the union, a block grant increase of 37 per cent, 87 per cent of students agreeing we made a positive difference and 49 per cent of student voting in an election or referendum this year and our commercial income has grown steadily throughout this period. Obviously there were other factors and initiatives along the way but I do believe that it was this focus that was the core reason. So much so that we will be making it our sole strategic focus going forward.

It is my opinion that as staff our role is provide an organisation that is well governed, sustainable, effective and supportive. Officers are only here for one year, they are the top tier of student participation and should not be bound by a strategy that was not set by them. The strategy should set broad parameters of areas of work but ultimately it should be for the organisation to improve its ability to support students (be they volunteers, representatives, elected officers or staff) to do what they want to do within the agreed parameters set by the student body. Our role is not to create great charities or great social enterprises but great students’ unions. We should stop trying to get sabbatical officers to appreciate KPIs and start making them the KPI.

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  1. Great article Paul. I too am a big fan of Jim Collins and we use his work extensively at Bournemouth – even to the point that we have a ‘Hedgehog Meeting’ once a week! I would perhaps go a bit further on a couple of your points though:

    1. what we aim to be best in the world at, and what our ‘Hedgehog Concept’ is, is the ‘representation’ that comes out of the student leadership; not just the fact that we are ‘student led’. Its a slight nuance, but by making this definition, it enables us to continually ask the Tony Benn type questions of democracy around ‘where do you get your power from?’ etc. If you focus on this element of being great, then it becomes an inevitable conclusion that SUs should invest heavily in their representation systems, rather than just have one ‘student rep co-ordinator’ and think that box is ticked.

    2. Sabbs driving the cash flow – I agree, but I think you’re underselling your own particular skills in helping shape a culture with students at the heart of the union, therefore seeing all the benefits you are now getting. The relationship between the university and the union therefore, in my opinion, also involves the need to get that level 5 leader (as proposed by Jim Collins) into the CEO/GM role – something which your hubris in this article neatly displays that you probably are!

  2. Thank you all for your positive feedback and I would like to pick up on some of your observations:

    It is interesting what you say, Aidan, as at one point I was considering calling this piece ‘Redefining Success’ for the reasons you point out; the success of elected officers is an indicator to the success of the CEO/GM in my opinion. But I would not stop at sabbatical officers, I think the success of students to run a students’ union should be the mark of success of a students’ union. I understand your point about Representation, Joff, and I think you are completely correct about that but I also think we need to go much wider than that as a movement – many officers stand because they want to change the Union and that should not be limited to a representational function but looked at as a managerial function with permanent staff facilitating that process. I think it would give us a real strategic advantage if students ran everything from A to B (advice to bars).

    I admit that I am coming at this from a very Sussex-centric perspective and I am not saying that this would work for the likes of your Leeds and Sheffields where the Union’s commercial services have a respected and secure position as a core University experience but more for unions where we are constantly looking over our shoulders at envious Registrar’s glances. For these types of unions we are forced to either try to compete on level terms with other providers by bringing in more experienced staff (that takes resources) and adopting more and more ‘real world’ business practises (that take us further and further away from our roots of student ownership) or to find something that differentiates us from outside competitors other than ethics. We need something that they could not or would not do – such as providing genuinely student owned and managed outlets.

    This is not an excuse to be crap. It would only work if they were commercially successful but they wouldn’t have to be as commercially successful in comparison to outside providers if their success was also measured in student ownership – at a worker, manager and board level.

    I don’t believe this is looking backward to how things were (because I don’t think they were ever like that) but forward to how things could be. And I’m not saying this would be right for all unions but I do think there are merits to this way of operating in the future and is something that we could be the best at in the world.

    P.S. Joff, I love the idea of weekly ‘Hedgehog meetings’ I think I am going to steal that idea.

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