In my annual lecture I argued that a decline in the effectiveness and legitimacy of hierarchies is sapping the problem solving capacity of society. I also argued that many third sector organisations are treating their members in a largely transactional way and thus failing to tap into the solidaristic potential of belonging. A big part of both problems is failing systems of governance: Which is why a post about the governance systems of the RSA is much more important than it sounds……
One of my many less than fully successful catch phrases for the RSA (‘if there had been fewer they might have been more memorable’ I hear my reader saying) has been ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’. By this I meant that the RSA’s contribution to progress should comprise not just outputs like RSAnimate, research reports and practical innovations but also the way we operate.
This ambition is reflected in a number of commitments; to become a top quality employer, to be generous, open and collaborative and – most important of all – to release the ‘hidden wealth’ of talent and commitment in the Society’s Fellowship.
Less exciting but equally important should be governance. A few months ago, I drew attention to some interesting findings in a report on professional associations by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (sadly, now hidden behind the CIM’s members only pay wall). This quote in particular caught my eye:
Sometimes governance issues can have a paralysing effect on an organisation. One organisation was completely hamstrung for over two years and made no progress at all whilst a war raged on its council
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the RSA’s recent history will know that governance issues have been a big headache here too. But now it feels like we have made big strides.
Historically, the relationship between RSA HQ in John Adam Street and the lay committees of Fellows in RSA regions and nations has been cold at best and oftentimes outright hostile. I remember one distinguished former Chair of the RSA Board telling me ‘the one thing I never tried to do was sort out the regions – it just wasn’t worth it’. But now, in almost all cases, we have clear, open and increasingly ambitious relationships between the centre and the nations and regions, focussed primarily on maximising Fellow engagement and impact.
Vikki Heywood appearance and speech to the Fellowship Council yesterday was the first by the Chair of the RSA Board for some years. It was well received and reflects the Society now having – in my humble opinion - the strongest and most engaged Board in my six years in post.
Best of all is the Fellowship Council made up of forty Fellows from all around the UK and beyond.
When you have been involved in creating something you are unlikely to be the most objective judge of its merits. So one reason I feel able to sing the praises of the RSA Fellowship Council was that I wasn’t even in attendance yesterday at what was, by all accounts, its most successful meeting.
The Council is still only four years old but it has come on leaps and bounds and now feels like a hub of commitment, ideas and activism. It may not be an unusual thing to say of a governance institution but – believe me - it is an unusual thing to say sincerely; the Fellowship Council contributes not only to accountability, it is a real asset to the organisation as a whole, making a concrete and tangible contribution to the pursuit of our charitable mission.
How has this been achieved? I offer four reasons:
For the RSA’s staff and Trustees Fellowship engagement has now been a non-negotiable strategic priority for several years. That the process of engagement should be designed and overseen by Fellows themselves was integral to our approach. What kept us going in the early rather rocky days of the Council was that there was simply no choice; the Council had to succeed if the strategy was to succeed.
The Council’s remit is clear and based on a right and a responsibility. It is the right of the Council to be the key forum for debate and recommendation-making over matters directly relating to the Fellowship, but it is also the responsibility of the Council to avoid become an alternative Trustee Board. Given that just about everything the RSA does has implications for Fellows there are, of course, grey areas, but over time the FC has come to understand the shades of grey and it has been enormously helped in this through the election of two FC members to sit on the Trustee Board, something which goes a long way to ensuring the two forums understand and respect each other.
People and process
Again from difficult beginnings the Council has over four years become more and made comprised of Fellows who are involved not because they enjoy serving on committees but because they want to be part of the project to make the Fellowship a powerful force for good. Most of the work of the FC is undertaken in working groups comprising Council members, Trustees and staff. Over the same period under the wise stewardship of its chairs and deputy chairs the Council has itself moved from being rather formal and obsessed with governance to being much more discursive, creative and focussed on impact.
The FC has kept getting better but it has done so against the backdrop of steady and concerted progress on Fellowship engagement more generally. More Fellows are getting involved with the RSA and working with each other and the quality and impact of what they are doing is improving too. This leads me to the tentative conclusion that governance has a better chance of being functional if it is focussed on significant externally-directed process of change
Many organisations and many organisational leaders have long since given up on the idea that governance can be an integral part of their impact. Many aspects of democratic governance are clunky or irrelevant being seen by policy makers as hurdles to get through not processes that add value let alone ones that are involved in change itself. The unfinished but impressive journey of the RSA Fellowship Council shows it doesn’t have to be this way.