Foundation trust staff governors feel disempowered and lack skills to scrutinise boards, unpublished research commissioned by the NHS Confederation suggests.

The study, carried out by the Involvement and Participation Association for the confederation’s Foundation Trust Network, looked at how governors could be made more effective.

Few staff governors had the skills to hold boards to account and many were unclear how their role differed from trade union representatives

Presenting the research at last week’s NHS Employers conference, IPA research manager Hannah Jameson said: “What we’re finding isn’t that we need staff governors to be doing an awful lot more, it’s about using the mechanism effectively so they’re really fulfilling their obligations and getting the most value out of that.”

Interviews with chief executives, chairs and governors at 10 foundations showed trusts had started off with high hopes for governors. Early foundation trust application documents referred to co-operative models such as the one used by retailer John Lewis, Ms Jameson said.

But few staff governors had the skills to hold boards to account and many were unclear how their role differed from trade union representatives. Ms Jameson said this meant a lot of governors “felt disempowered because they’re not sure what they can do yet”.

She said the findings may partly explain poor turnouts for governor elections, particularly among staff, as revealed in HSJ.

Some foundation trust chief executives have been mentoring governors in an attempt to turn them into leaders.

The IPA research suggested HR departments could also offer training to attract people from a greater variety of backgrounds into governor roles.

The need for candidates to have flexible schedules and a high level of skills often meant governors were a “self selecting group” that came from a general management level, said Ms Jameson.

But she added that “one of the ways trusts can really protect their freedoms is to make sure they’re accountable to members through governors”.

Governing boards have come under fire recently after figures were published showing that up to 31 per cent of elections are uncontested.