Making the tough decisions about your program – nobody likes a dilemma!

Even when you’re trying to keep it simple, programs may seem complex, with too many moving parts to count. With this complexity comes variability – it is inevitable that decisions in all shapes and sizes will need to be made.

We don’t want to add more to your plate but one of the first things you should be doing is making decisions… about making decisions. How will decisions get made? Who is ultimately responsible? There’s a lot to think about.

Fortunately, there are multiple things you can do to simplify and bring clarity to this process, ensuring that your decision making is both efficient and effective (it’s a win-win!).

It all comes back to good governance. 

It’s a word we all hear (and possibly avoid). Governance can sound quite intimidating, but don’t be put off – planning appropriate governance is well worth the effort.

In the program context, governance refers to the structures and processes which are in place to make decisions and manage the program. When implemented well, this will offer a range of benefits at both the organisational and program level. Ultimately an appropriate governance model will ensure that all program stakeholders have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, supporting efficient program management and decision making.

Put simply, on a daily basis, governance in programs is about the way objectives are established, and how the people working within the program hold each other to account for the contribution they each make in achieving the objectives.

‘We have a governance framework in operation across our organisation. Isn’t that enough?’ In a word… No.

Unfortunately, there is a no-one-size fits all approach to governance. As a program manager, you will need to carefully design and consider your governance model to ensure it is appropriate to the aims, stakeholders and operating context of your program.

Good governance in programs requires a deliberate design to provide assurance about:

  • performance — how everyone involved in the program contributes to the overall performance; the achievement of strategic outcomes and the effective and efficient delivery of program outputs; and
  • conformance — how the program ensures the individuals involved in it meet the requirements of the law, regulations, published standards, internal policy and community expectations of probity, accountability and openness.

Ensure you have appropriate governance in place

  1. Develop good structures – it’s likely that your program will involve a broad range of stakeholders, functions and activities. Clear and unambiguous lines of reporting, accountability and responsibility are critical to effective program management. A structural diagram that shows the key stakeholders and decision-makers in the program and the relationships and interactions between them is a useful way to illustrate the program eco-system.
  2. Understand and define accountabilities – Agreed, clearly articulated and unambiguous accountabilities form the governance controls within the program. This is critical to the integrity and transparency of decision making ensuring everyone understands not only what they are responsible for, but also what groups or individuals each activity, decision or problem(!) should be escalated to. In setting accountabilities consider not only what each individual or group is responsible for, but also how you’ll know they are successful, who they need to report to / interact with and what limitations or challenges they may face.
  3. Be clear about program meetings – Most programs use committees and working groups to support program management and decision making. While this is great for collaboration, it has the potential to result in a lot of meetings. Mapping out the meetings that are required and ensuring that each has clearly defined terms of reference is critical to ensure this occurs in a streamlined and efficient manner.
  4. Embed good decision making – The rationale for decision-making protocols must be transparent and realistic. In establishing the decision-making framework consider (and ensure you comply with!) external requirements and legislation, internal policies and practices as well as internal culture and performance relevant to your organisation and program. When planning for complex decisions involving multiple individuals/groups it can help to visually map out the decision-making process.
  5. Have a plan for implementation – Program governance can’t be treated as a theoretical concept. It is something that needs to be embedded and ‘lived’ as part of your ongoing program management delivery. Make sure you have a clear plan for how the program and its governance structures will be implemented, including what knowing what your key milestones are, and how you’ll know they have been achieved.
  6. Plan to communicate and share information – Communication is at the heart of program delivery and decision making. Set up your program to ensure the right people are kept informed along the way, and information is readily available to your key stakeholders. This will ensure that everyone is up to date, expediting the decision-making process. Consider the use of program dashboards to communicate key information about the status and progress of initiatives that are relevant to your stakeholders and decisions makers.
  7. Monitor the performance of your governance arrangements – Likely, your program will have well-defined measures to demonstrate outputs and outcomes. But does it have performance measures associated specifically with the program governance? Processes for monitoring program health need to be an integral part of the program performance measures. Assessing program health goes beyond measuring the current effectiveness of the parties in meeting their own agreed performance measures. Program health covers all aspects of the governance model, including how the program is managed, its structures, its culture, its policies and strategies, and the way it deals with its various stakeholders.

Program governance isn’t a ‘set and forget’ activity. As with any component of your program, it is important you regularly revisit and review your governance structures to make sure that they are appropriate and on-track to achieve your aims. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to make changes.