What have we learned from peer reviews?

The first round of 42 peer reviews is now complete and we have moved into a second round of reviews. In this article we set out the key learning points from the peer reviews which took place in 2017.

The peer review process has given dioceses the ability to speak frankly about the challenges they face, within a framework of mutual accountability. The content of discussions within peer review meetings is confidential to enable open discussion and feedback, and we don’t comment here on the situation in individual dioceses.

However, we have mined the information gathered through the peer review process to identify insights which might be of interest to all dioceses.  For this note we examined the reports from the peer reviews which took place in 2017, focusing on where panels made suggestions for the diocesan senior team to consider. We looked for issues which had arisen in more than half of the reviews to identify learning points which could provide an insight into the position of dioceses across the Church more generally. As ever, we remain very grateful to dioceses and to the peer reviewers for embracing the process and their contributions to it.

First, it is important to remember that the peer reviewers found much by way of encouragement in their discussions with dioceses.

Second, a health warning. Nineteen different three-person panels went to nineteen different dioceses and they identified nineteen sets of strengths to affirm and nineteen different sets of suggestions for dioceses to consider.  In reading this report, it is important to keep in mind that the variations between dioceses are often as marked as the commonalities.  Furthermore, although this report covers around half of the Church’s dioceses, it is not necessarily the case that the issues identified will be true of the remaining dioceses. This is in part because the 2017 programme focused on those dioceses which are not receiving the new Lowest Income Communities Funding.

Six learning points for senior diocesan teams

  1. Many dioceses have simple statements of their vision or mission and most expand this into a briefing document for dissemination across their deaneries and parishes.  The first learning point from 2017’s peer reviews is that dioceses need to increase their focus on these visions – building momentum and a sense of urgency – and, in doing so, they need to complement an engaging set of words with clarity on the scale of ambition, change and/or outcomes they are prayerfully hoping for.  This is likely to require quantified objectives while avoiding the perils of a target-driven culture.
     
  2. Last year’s report on peer review learning points highlighted the need for dioceses to strengthen their communications.  The same point has arisen in many of 2017’s peer reviews and it is clearly a common factor for dioceses across the Church.  For example, the following quotes have been taken from suggestions made in 2017 peer review reports:
  • “Make additional efforts to communicate the importance of certain priority areas.”
  • “Be imaginatively persistent with communications about the vision while exploring new channels and opportunities.”
  • “The diocese’s vision and strategy needs to be communicated in a concise, clear and consistent manner regularly.”
  • “Enhance diocesan communications more generally including digital media.”
  1. The scope of dioceses’ work is large and there is a very strong temptation to try to press ahead on all fronts. As the ‘whirlwind’ of daily life in a diocese takes up so much time and energy, there is relatively little opportunity available to focus on areas where significant effort is required. That is why many peer review panels urged dioceses to focus on just a few strategic priority areas in the year ahead.  Panels sometimes encouraged dioceses to consider areas where they might cease work, others were encouraged to ‘hold their nerve’ and avoid new initiatives which would not make a sizeable contribution to the current priorities.
     
  2. Building on the above two points, dioceses were also asked to develop evaluation and measurement frameworks to help senior teams and governance groups identify the level of impact which interventions are bringing about and if they are achieving the desired outcomes.  One panel put it succinctly: ‘the agreed priorities should be coupled with credible outcomes, measures and KPIs’. In some cases, panels suggested that ‘lead measures’ were required, i.e. indicators of whether progress was being made towards the ‘lag measures’ of hoped-for outcomes and impact.
     
  3. In 2017, dioceses’ challenging financial positions proved the most common issue highlighted by reviewers for diocesan action, being raised in 16 of the 19 peer reviews. We had found the same thing when we reviewed 2016’s reports. As in 2016, it was not that the peer reviewers were bringing the financial problems to the attention of a diocese for the first time. Rather, the key question from reviewers was often: ‘what more do you need to do to ensure your finances were sustainable into the medium term?’ At a time when the Church is rightly focused on growth and the common good, it is important to remember the financial challenges faced by many dioceses and the need for wise stewardship.
     
  4. The sixth and final issue highlighted by a majority of peer review panels was that of effective governance. The specific issues raised included improvements to risk management and reviewing governance arrangement more generally. While improving governance is rarely towards the top of a diocese’s priorities, effective governance arrangements are essential to improved mutual accountability.

And finally, there were two other issues which were raised in a substantial number of 2017’s peer reviews and are worth mentioning. Strongly linked to the point above about financial sustainability, but found to be a significant issue in its own right, peer review panels encouraged dioceses to raise the profile of strong stewardship.  The second issue also came up repeatedly in 2016’s peer reviews and is increasingly being discussed elsewhere: the need to identify and share ways that mission, growth and discipleship can flourish in partnership with Church of England schools.