As someone who has banged on for years about central local relations, and generally been on the side of the localists it is an interesting test when I face the same issues as Chief Executive of the RSA.
We are having a lively debate with one of our regions (I won’t say which one as I don’t want to incur the wrath of Geoffrey Boycott or be pelted with Sam Smith’s bitter and Pontefract cakes). As any RSA Fellow should know we have been working to support the Fellowship in being more ambitious and outward looking. Part of this has been about encouraging our regions to see an important part of what they do as supporting local Fellows’ initiatives.
The region in question has been going in this direction but an unexpected change of leadership led me – perhaps unwisely – to remind the committee of the centre’s expectations. Understandably, some committee members saw this as John Adam Street imposing its will.
After a few slightly heated exchanges the centre and region are now committed to working together, but the episode highlights the need for clarity in the RSA – as in any national membership organisation – about the relation between the centre, regional and local groups.
My take is this: the RSA is a national organisation and awards its Fellowships at a national level, albeit sometimes on local recommendation. As such, there needs to be a reasonable level of consistency between the way the RSA portrays its vision and working methods wherever it operates. This still leaves huge scope for local interpretation and initiative but, for example, when we say nationally that the RSA is an organisation that seeks to make an impact in society (as well as organising important social and educational activities organised for Fellows), we need to see that ambition reflected locally. A related point is that for Fellowship to continue to attract charitable status it is important that being a Fellow is about supporting our charitable purposes not enjoying members’ benefits. This is one reason, for example, why our national events are open to the public and not restricted to Fellows.
There is always a danger in these debates that the centre is seen as being overbearing. Here in John Adam Street we are paid staff whereas our committees and local groups rely on the volunteer effort of busy and talented people. In recognition of this, our staff are doing a great deal of work ‘on the ground’ to engage with regions and Fellows, to communicate and build networks and we look forward to strengthening these still further. In addition, I am asking our Trustees to explore how we can make the national Fellowship more self-governing. This way the debate is not between centre and regions but among Fellows themselves.
For far too long RSA HQ tended to keep the broader Fellowship at arm’s length. As we try to get more and more Fellows to engage with the Society’s mission and with each other, there are bound to be issues to resolve. In this sense the kind of lively debate we have been having with this region is a real sign of progress.