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There’s trust in ICE’s leadership – but we shouldn't be complacent 

25 March 2022

ICE senior vice president Keith Howells gives an update on the review of leadership at the Institution of Civil Engineers.

There’s trust in ICE’s leadership – but we shouldn't be complacent 
ICE senior vice president Keith Howells (pictured) is guiding a review into the institution's governance. Image credit: Keith Howells

The review I'm leading into the roles and responsibilities of the ICE leadership team has been progressing with interviews now largely complete. It's being conducted in light of widely publicised governance issues at RICS

Findings so far have indicated that the ethical leadership of the ICE is considered sound, open and transparent, and there is a lot of trust in the executive team/Trustee Board.  

While it is considered unlikely that what happened at RICS would happen at the ICE, this is a presumption based on trust.  

We should not be complacent, as too much trust can lead to a hands-off approach.  

The risk is not just related to the governance structure but also about organisational culture and people’s behaviours.  

Ensuring the competence and integrity of the senior staff and board members is vital, and the role of the Nominations Committee in this is critical. 

‘Patchy’ understanding 

Understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of the Trustee Board, the Council, and the executive team is patchy. 

While most of those interviewed felt the Orr review had brought greater clarity, both the Trustee Board and the Council were still felt to be ‘finding their feet’.  

Among those who had served on the Trustee Board, there was recognition of a lack of challenge by the board of the executive team.  

This was attributed to a number of factors. 

These included: 

  • complacency based on trust in the executive team;
  • the rapid turnover of board members, with new members taking time to build confidence; 
  • the depth and breadth of information presented; and
  • a lack of time to discuss critical matters, partly due to the voluntary nature of board/council positions.

Could we bring in external specialists? 

The respective roles of the Audit Committee and the Finance Audit and Risk Committee (FARC) in providing assurance around financial (as well as general) governance is well recognised. As is the importance of ensuring committee members have the competencies required.  

It was noted that similar organisations have several external specialists on their finance/audit committees.  

There were strong views that an internal audit function would be desirable to support the work of the Audit Committee – this could be bought-in periodically rather than be in-house. 

Good communication is vital 

Good communication and engagement were seen as vital to open and transparent governance, with the difference between communications and engagement highlighted by several people.  

It was noted that while it was convenient to hold board/committee meetings online, this led to fewer opportunities to build relationships with other members.  

This may, over time, impact the effectiveness of governance.  

Many felt that the leadership needs to be more tangible, with presidential visits seen as an important means of engagement.  

There were mixed views on the need for a ‘whistleblowing hotline’ for members. But the consensus was that this was generally good practice. 

Next steps 

The preliminary findings will be discussed at the next Trustee Board meeting and a set of recommendations for improving governance developed.  

While the interviews with a cross-section of members with governance knowledge and experience are largely complete, others may wish to offer views.  

To this end, a brief online questionnaire has been developed and members are invited to request access from [email protected].  

  • Keith Howells, president 2022/23 at Institution of Civil Engineers