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Governance structures in action Home > Governance >

Governance structures in action

There is, at first glance, nothing striking in the overall governance of the network. As most networks of excellence, PRIME had a Governing Board, An Executive Committee, A Scientific Committee, A Standards and Ethics Group and different Working Groups. It also relied on an Administrative, Financial and Legal Operator, which professionalisation was a central feature in its performance (see specific page). What interests us here is the ways in which these bodies were set and operated, and the lessons we derive from this experience.

The roles of the Governing Board
One of the most common features to be found out for networks of excellence is that there is a core group of teams within the network that are ex-ante allocated all the seats to the central decision making body for the duration of the project. We considered this as an unsustainable approach to the ‘strategic management’ of a community. The organisational approach adopted relied upon the creation of a ‘Governing Board’ of shareholders in charge of electing the members of the executive structures, of nominating new members (or excluding present ones), and of adopting the overall strategy. Voting rights were allocated following 3 criteria : standing in the field, investment in future generations and involvement in the network. The initial 42 organisations gathered some 110 voting rights altogether with a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 10.
To elect members for the ExC, organisations required to gather 10 votes to propose one representative. This offered the possibility for small groups to agglomerate bottom-up and propose one representative. The Governing Board elected twice the Executive Committee, at the beginning and at mid-term. The composition of the Executive Committee clearly reflected this process, in term of both diversity and renewal (see box).
This is not to say that there were not tensions between members and the Executive Committee. It has been a recurrent theme in annual meetings that bottom-up members did not know enough about what the ExC did. Questions were raised about the connection between those elected and those who supported them, or about the need for more direct face-to-face encounters between members of the ExC and Lab heads. Clearly there is more needed than newsletters, websites, and e-mails relations, an old, well known but lasting issue that new means of communication reduce but do not solve.
Another central role of the Governing Board was to discuss major redirections. This was especially strong at the Paris annual meeting (February 2006) where we decided to abandon the ‘forum experiment’, to take a pro-active stance on one central challenge that had not been addressed bottom-up (ERA dynamics) and to develop linkages with colleagues in other continents via shared conferences and via a specific development with African partners. In Pisa (February 2007) we discussed the two central questions raised by the monitoring panel about enlargement to new member states and about dissemination activities.

The functioning of the Executive Committee
The Executive Committee was thus the operational arm of the NoE. Made up of 12 persons, it ensured a wide coverage of themes, approaches and countries or geographic areas. The nomination process was such that it enabled a balanced representation of large and small groups. One specific issue was that of gender balance, but this did not result in a gender bias with regard to the actions selected and the responsibilities associated with them (see management report).
Setting our the rules of functioning, defining calls and selection mechanisms, discussing types of activities and shaping them in order to internalise monitoring, and setting up support structures – all these required intense activities which meant that the ExC had to meet for up to 2 days at least 4 times a year in the first 2 years. Subsequently an element of learning meant that many on-going activities could be dealt with electronically, complemented with physical meetings linked to key events (mostly workshops and conferences). Such physical meetings could then focus more on strategic matters. This was the case when we organised a pro-active process to address on-going Europeanisation (later associated with the ERA Dynamics project) or when we discussed issues associated with the very critical 2005 review report (October 2006), where we strongly contested a number of the points made by the EC reviewers and questioned the evaluation approach adopted. Finally, when the situation stabilised, we learnt that there would be no continuation of EC support to NoEs in SS&H and the physical meetings then focused on discussing options for the future while all operational decisions were handled through an electronic process (see management report).
One aspect that has fascinated the young observers we have had quite a number of times, was the extent of discussions that took place and the ability to arrive at shared conclusions, meaning that we never have had to apply the very complex voting rules that had been included in the consortium agreement to insure operational performance.

What role for a Scientific Committee in a community-based network ?
We were proud to have a highly respected Scientific Committee with successive dedicated chairs (Professors Meyer-Krahmer and Krull). At the same time, we were never able to stabilize its role. The Committee was very helpful at the beginning in helping the ExC shape the rules for the calls and the selection process. It helped also in the initial selection process when internal rules of the ExC had not yet been stabilised. But progressively the ExC, a group of 12 highly respected academics, took over the day-to-day running of the NoE, and in particular the selection of projects, and only called upon the Scientific Committee in a few difficult cases.
The other role we anticipated lay in strategic evolution. The ex-post analysis of the coordinator is that, in a community, hard choices have to be prepared and these require wide-ranging acceptance (often obtained in a multi-stage process). And this is what happened in all cases of change. This means that, in the enlarged strategic meetings held, members of the Scientific Committee were participants among others (with a voice linked in part to their personal standing rather than to their official seat in the NoE).
Was this a limitation of the experiment ? Some think that, if the SC had been more powerful, we would have been in a better position to focus on a few selected research programmes. The view of the coordinator was that the NoE was not a replacement for a ‘funding agency’ but a place to favour explorations and to organise lasting commitments to shared facilities, with the result that what emerges is not concentration but exploration and variety. In short, the view of the coordinator and others is that, for community-based networks, it is good to have a ‘reference body’ with whom to discuss ‘difficult issues’, but not necessarily a traditional ‘scientific committee’. One role of such a ‘reference body’ would be to conduct periodic evaluations of activities to give ‘quasi-external’ advice to stakeholders when new long-term decisions (such as renewing or closure) are to be taken.

Working groups
Our ambition was to have for each theme and each structural activity a working group that would act as an open space for discussing transversal issues, act as an integrative mechanism of the different activities undertaken within the theme and play a role in updating the agenda. These worked well for the two structural activities – training and indicators. These two groups shared common aims : they had specific activities to organise. The indicators group organised first a comparative programme to learn about the respective national indicator production situations, and then focused on the organisation of dedicated conferences. The training group had to define the different activities and then to run them (and in particular operate all the selection processes for the individual students participating to the different activities). In contrast, by and large, the thematic groups were a failure. Two reasons may explain this contrasting situation : first we did not organise specific activities for running the thematic groups. We considered that it should be voluntary work by those co-funded in the respective themes. The second reason is associated with research dynamics : when people enter ‘risky’ projects, they enter in a quasi silo focusing on their own problems. It is only when results start to flow, when you hear about the results of the others that you start wishing having transversal discussions and even look for more articulation. A good example was provided for by the discussions in the Pisa annual meeting around universities and Irwin Feller’s comments. But it has proven difficult to organise when there is little steam left in the pot (from mid 2007 it was clear for all that the EC directorate in SSH had decided no longer to support NoE – and it is difficult to operate with such a dis-incentive !).
‘Standards and Ethics group’
One support function for the Executive Committee dealt with ethical issues. We established a three-person group, which any researcher facing difficulties could consult. In our field ethical problems are not as intense or as frequent as in exact or life sciences. The main ones relate to access and the use of databases and to authorship issues. An interesting result is that for 3 years the group was never consulted, which raised questions about its usefulness. It is only in 2008 that we faced a problem, and the fact that the group was in place, proved really important not only because it was able to solve the issue, but because it was already there when the problem arose, so that it was not created specifically to address it with all the corresponding potential issues about bias and fairness. There is perhaps an interesting lesson to reflect upon when trying to strike a balance between coverage and simplicity.



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