Jayne Dowden: ‘We’ve made steps to convince Treasury that efficiency is on our agenda’ 

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Jayne Dowden, chief operating officer, University of Cardiff
Cardiff University has been undergoing a massive change programme along with a series of transformational projects, all this whilst continuing making a significant contribution to the economy of Wales. We caught up with chief operating officer Jayne Dowden to find out how she juggles such a challenging portfolio.

  1. Can you tell me a little about your role as COO at Cardiff?

My role as COO has three main parts. The first part is my role as leader of the Professional Services in Cardiff: I have direct line responsibility for the central professional services and indirect responsibility for the wider professional services in colleges and schools.

Then I have a role as a member of the executive board, which advises the vice chancellor at Cardiff. That’s where we think about the direction of the university, how we support delivering the strategy and decide which proposals for change actually go forward.

Thirdly, I am the secretary to the council so that gives me a significant governance role, making sure that we do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way and that the council is supported in getting the information needed to guide and steer the executive in the right direction. So it is quite an interesting job. After two and a half years I am well settled in the job, the honeymoon is well over and now I am expected to deliver.

  1. What are the biggest efficiency challenges at Cardiff?

Our new vice chancellor arrived in 2012 with a very clear strategy for the institution: to make it more financially efficient while delivering a change agenda. The strategy included some challenging measures for us. One was to get our costs down to 54% of total income each year in order to fund change. At that stage we were about 57%. It’s clearly possible to address that KPI in two ways. One is to cut staff costs, the other is to increase income, so we had a two pronged strategy.

We have a number of initiatives on both sides of that equation. We have to be lean and mean and control staff costs. That has placed a real emphasis on measures to increase efficiency over the past three years.  We also have a range of initiatives to help us generate more income, by selective expansion of programmes and generation of research income.  Combined they are helping us achieve our goals.

  1. How do you balance the ‘business as usual’ with the need to improve the way things are done?

As I’ve already mentioned, Colin Riordan, our VC, came in with a clear vision to reinvigorate the university and to really transform it. In practice, that led to us identifying a quantity of transformational projects across the university to make sure Cardiff was performing really well, delivering for students and could support the research agenda.

We recognised that we had to change how we did things, while keeping the show on the road. At first, we went off in a number of directions, without significant coordination initially. Each member of the executive board had their own ideas and agenda but there was no system for bringing together initiatives.

We took stock and said, is this approach really working? So I set up a Programme Management Office (PMO). We were very lucky in having a chief information officer who had worked in financial services delivering large change programmes and we used her experience to set up the PMO.

The adoption of a portfolio management approach with regular monitoring and reporting has helps us to control the pipeline of change and make sure we deliver the change we were said we were going to do. That controls the transformation agenda and makes it much more professionally supported. We can now ensure that projects are appropriately resourced so to deliver while others focus on business as usual because that’s their role.

In the real world of course it’s never quite as clean on that because projects draw on the people working in the institution. That can create tension in the system because different projects will need to draw on the same people who also have their business as usual jobs to get on with. That being said, I am much more confident about the things we have committed to.

  1. How has your HR background prepared you for being a COO?

I was one of the first HR professionals in the sector to get a COO job with responsibility for all the professional services. But my analysis of what Cardiff was looking for was someone who could help challenge the status quo while keeping things moving. Many of my skills lie in the organisational development and management areas, as well as people development. And I think it’s those things that made the VC confident that I could do the role as we needed here at Cardiff.

Every COO role is different. COO roles in institutions change their emphasis depending on where that institution is in its maturity and appetite for change. Here we have a big change agenda including a transformational agenda in the professional services. That requires leadership.  I have built a strong professional leadership team in the past two years drawing from inside Cardiff and from other universities across the UK. That team is operating really, really strongly and showing good leadership in the professional services – which makes my job a lot easier.

  1. What have been the key achievements at Cardiff in terms of improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and value for money?

Historically Cardiff had a very flat structure (28 schools reporting to the then vice-chancellor) with limited central coordination. That made it difficult to give a steer in things like procurement. We now have three colleges with some distributed professional services. We have engaged people more in cost effective purchasing for example and I have asked the finance director to make further advances in the coming year.

In Wales we work closely with the public sector through a procurement organisation called Value Wales. As a large organisation in a relatively small country, we have a real economic impact. Our activities make up nearly 1.4% of Wales’ GVA, which is significant for one university.

One of the principles in our strategy is the principle of subsidiarity: which means that we choose to deliver services at the most appropriate point in the organisation. Some things are most efficient if done centrally; others are better done in the school or in the college. I introduced the concept of business partners, as a glue between the central services those delivered more locally. Some business partners are now college based rather than centrally. They are closer to the customer and can develop services more effectively because their understanding of business need has now been sharpened.

We have also been running a business intelligence change programme, which has introduced strong analytic tools to help us see more clearly where there are issues – and indeed where there is really good practice.   We are building links as a result to share that practice more purposefully across the institution.

Underpinning this we are planning a big people development agenda for professionals across the organisation which will make a significant difference in efficiency, effectiveness but also people’s careers and people’s ability to grow in their careers.

Another initiative we are working on at the moment is called One IT which aims to bring together services across the university into a single reshaped IT organisation. It will help us run the service more effectively and resiliently for schools. We have until now had a dispersed model, with schools providing their own local IT support, which works well until there are gaps caused by unavoidable absences for holidays or sickness or by skills gaps.  The new model we are developing reconfigures IT people into a single one IT team with well-defined services.  Some will be delivered virtually; others through geographically located support teams, giving greater local resilience. The new way of working will also bring together those with high level expertise into teams where their skills can benefit us more widely.  There will be a much clearer set of roles for IT staff with greater clarity over career development options and progression.  So it will give us more resilience, more efficient use of resources and a better outcome for staff.

Next year we will be looking in a more focused way at particular processes. We have done an effectiveness survey this year, which has enabled our customers to identify which services are most important to them, and also which ones are doing well or not so well. That’s given us a very clear steer on where we need to direct our efforts. Those who completed the survey felt the people were good and trying hard to do a good job but that the processes need improving.

So we are making good progress in a variety of ways but there is still much to do.

  1. Is there more that universities could do to promote their efficiency achievements to government?

This is a difficult one. The two Diamond reports have encouraged universities to be more open and share good practice, hence the Efficiency Exchange is there. I think in that way we have made some steps to convince Treasury that efficiency is on our agenda. We have to keep messaging them how good we are, what we do, all these things we share. It is important that we continue to give government examples of how we are increasing our efficiency.

  1. What do you enjoy most about your role?

Cardiff is a great place to work. You meet people who want to make the university more successful and it is a real privilege being able to help steer that.

It’s not a role in which you can be bored. No two days are alike. You could can spend one day on budgets and the next on innovation strategy. It is really quite diverse and that makes it an interesting job in a great place.

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Rosie Niven
Rosie is the content editor at Efficiency Exchange