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Cascading good governance - the County FA Governance Code

Sarah Nickless describes the innovative project undertaken by The Football Association to embed good governance throughout the county structure. 

Date: 18th May 2020

Author: Sarah Nickless, The Football Association

An indication of the need for a County FA Governance Code came from the County FAs themselves.  Much like The Football Association (The FA), County FAs evolved from committed volunteers freely giving their time to run the game locally.  Yet, modern corporate governance standards have continued to develop and there was recognition from within the County FA network that current practices needed testing against such standards.

The FA have now undertaken an 18-month process from initiating conversations to developing and launching a code of governance for the County FAs – who are our regional offices delivering and governing football at a local level.

Our largest County FAs generate a greater income and have more full time members of staff than several National Governing Bodies combined. As companies in their own right, it is imperative that County FAs have in place appropriate governance structures. It is entirely appropriate to support them in embedding governance arrangements which help them represent the game being played, and support the growth and evolution of the business to ensure functional operations and effective decision making.

The FA, through the coming together of a working group representing County FAs, Sport England, The FA Executive and The FA Youth Council, looked at Tier 3 of the Code of Sports Governance through a football lens. Throughout this process, points from the Sport England code were debated heavily, some areas removed, others added in line with the needs of the game and relevance to County FAs. The final product was a code which we think represents a ‘Gold Standard’ of corporate governance in football.

Launched in January 2020, the Code represents a landmark: the first Code of Governance created and now being implemented by a National Governing Body. This something which The FA is incredibly proud of. Reaching this point was no easy ride. As mentioned, this process took 18 months and started by getting the right people in the room to discuss, debate and make decisions for the good of the game – not personal gain. For us, having a diverse working group which included County FA Chairs and CEOs was imperative. We needed to ensure the Code set the right governance standards, but was also realistic based on the diverse demographic of our regional offices. Cornwall, compared to London, to Worcestershire is very different. Principles of good governance, however, are consistent.

Sharing the right amount of information at the right time proved a crucial marker of progress. Everyone wants to share their thoughts. At times, these were around ‘how does this impact me?’ rather than ‘what is best for the game?’ The ability to look at the process, needs and impact objectively was a common check across the working group. While recognising the implementation of the Code will dramatically change boardrooms across County FAs and the way in which football is governed at a local level, it is a change which is necessary.

There is, of course, the impact at a very human level. Some Board Directors within the regional offices have been in post for several years, and in some cases for decades. While we are doing what is right for the game, we also have to consider sensible options for recognising the contributions of those volunteers who have put so much into the game – however, time served followed by a Board Director position isn’t the appropriate mechanism.

The Code at present is not mandatory, and there are no plans for it to be enforced. The FA have a process in place for monitoring the implementation of the Code for those who choose to adopt the principles outlined, supported through FA Executive, Regional Managers and effective technology we can test through early adopters and make any tweaks where necessary.

What is absolutely certain, nobody is being set up to fail. On the contrary, we are equipping football through our County FAs to succeed.


Sarah Nickless is Project Officer – Youth Leadership at the Football Association and former Chair of the FA Youth Council