The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is facing something of a “Tea Party” moment. There are two motions that have been put forward for the society’s 27,442 Fellows (members) to vote on at its AGM on 6th December 2010.The first motion is to form a governance advisory group and the second motion is for the society to move to a “democratically elected” Trustee board. The first motion has the support of the existing trustees (who are mostly appointed rather than elected) but the second motion is being vehemently opposed by the trustees and their supporters with Luke Johnson, Chair of the RSA threatening to resign and darkly suggesting that other trustees might do the same should the second motion be voted-in.
Jonathan Rollason, Chair of the RSA London Region, who proposed the second motion for an “all elected” trustee board made it quite clear at a recent Q&A, organised by the RSA on 18th November 2010, that this was not a personal attack on any existing trustee and that he hoped that all the current trustees would stand for election alongside new nominees. It is a motion to propose an alternative organisational model for the 250-year old society which in recent decades has been seen as increasingly remote from its Fellowship. Centralisation of RSA regional activity, with many parts of the UK having no local presence just a networks manager based at the society’s headquarters in London, has diminished its ability to “roll out” successful campaigns nationally. Added to this are poor communication issues, a cumbersome website and the under-funding of regional branches -
problems common to many third sector organisations.
“The motion for an ‘all elected’ trustee board could easily have been a general motion of ‘no confidence’ in the board, but, it is not that at all. Nor is it a motion for some disillusioned and embittered fellows to wreak their revenge on the Trustee board. It is there to offer the RSA Fellows a strong voice in determining the direction of our beloved society and to further promote the core values of the RSA which are to promote new thinking, social innovation and an ethos of collaboration”, said Jonathan Rollason, “how can the RSA advise society on social change when it struggles to embrace democracy itself? The motion has no time-frame and we would expect the governance review group to recommend a strategy that works for the RSA and a time-frame. The governance review group might recommend that when the current trustee’s appointments come to a close their replacements are elected. We will find out in 2011 when the group reports.”
"Furthermore, Motion 2 for an ‘all elected’ trustee board
in its supporting statement clarifies that the proposer of the motion and supporters are open “to co-option of observers based on their specific expertise, in addition to the elected ones.” This latter statement was subsumed in the haste to meet the deadline for the AGM vote. So what makes this suggestion different from the current status quo? “Well it redresses the balance from the current mostly appointed Trustees to the future’s elected Trustees, which is a push towards greater democracy and self-determination for the organisation and it’s Fellowship” explained Mr Rollason, proposer of the motion.
Discussions on the RSA’s Fellowship Council ning site, on
the RSA LinkedIn group and musings by Matthew Taylor have generated a lively debate about the issues and thrown up some seemingly anomalous ideas:
1. The RSA is not
a membership organisation per se, although the majority of Fellows do need the ability to network with each other and at a local level to collaborate and create the innovative plans that the society advocates, activities that are a common feature of membership organisations.
2. Although the
RSA has well established Royal Charter, Constitution and remit, most fellows expect its organisational structure to be more flexible than it presently is.
3. Clarity and transparency of the board’s decision-making processes would be welcome by all fellows.
4. Most fellows
appreciate that the Trustee board has finely-defined remit to deliver on governance issues, financial stability and charitable activities of the Society, but, feel that some adaptation from the arcane structures first created in 1850 would be appropriate for a 21st Century RSA.
5. Many fellows are relatively disengaged from the governance issues and perplexed by why governance is such a controversial issue. However, many of these fellows are themselves frustrated with the inability “to make change happen” under the auspices of the RSA.
There is no “magic bullet” to resolve the seemingly
dichotomous points listed above, however this is the first chance in the RSA’s 250-year history for fellows to make a genuine difference. Doom-mongers may claim that the good work of the RSA will come to a halt should the RSA be without a Chair and some its trustees, however these individuals fail to take into account the facts that the RSA is in a sound financial position it has a strong management team, it has a 40-strong part-elected Fellowship Council and it has the goodwill of 27,442 high-achieving, eminent and respected Fellows.
The motion for an ‘all-elected’ trustee board will need a
majority vote on 6th December in order to be passed. It is simply a call for democracy. Surely the RSA should be an example to others and show how democracy can work? Perhaps the future will change as a result?